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‘You smell blood in the water’: How Utah limited Heisman Trophy favorite Caleb Williams in Pac-12 title game

Utah sacked Williams, who played the whole game despite a hamstring injury, seven times.

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USC Trojans QB Caleb Williams runs with the ball while playing the Utah Utes during the Pac-12 Championship at the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. The Utes won 47-24.

USC Trojans QB Caleb Williams runs with the ball while playing the Utah Utes during the Pac-12 Championship at the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. The Utes won 47-24.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

LAS VEGAS — Utah’s defense faced a massive challenge Friday going into the Pac-12 championship game.

How to slow down the hottest quarterback in the country, USC’s Caleb Williams, the Heisman Trophy favorite? 

At the beginning, Williams seemed to be having his way with the Ute defense, but after suffering a hamstring injury in the first quarter, Utah went after Williams, and that was a key factor in the Utes’ 47-24 victory over the Trojans. 

Utah sacked Williams, who played the whole game, seven times. 

“When you see a quarterback become not as mobile as he could be or should be, you smell blood in the water and you start bringing the heat. That’s the strategy you want to use,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.

“Caleb is a tremendous player, maybe the most difficult quarterback to sack that we ever played against. We banged him up, slowed him down. He definitely took some punishment from our guys. We turned up the pressure.”

Williams completed 28 of 41 passes for 363 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.

He had thrown only three picks all season.  

Certainly, the hamstring injury, suffered during a 59-yard run in the first quarter, changed the way Williams played as he hobbled around on the field. 

“I asked him at one point, are you 50%? He wasn’t even close to 50%. I definitely thought about taking him out,” said USC coach Lincoln Riley.

“He wouldn’t have let me, and he didn’t let me. In terms of guys I’ve coached at that position, maybe the gutsiest performance I’ve ever seen. Most guys wouldn’t have even played. He still gave us a chance.” 

Williams described his hamstring as “an old rubber band.”

“The rest of the game I felt it but I have something I always go by — something I have watched and admired, and a person I admire, Kobe (Bryant),” Williams said.

“He always said the game is bigger than what you’re feeling. I was in my head encouraging myself that the game is bigger than what I was feeling. I also had a group of guys that was looking at me to go out there and lead ‘em to victory.”

Utah beat Williams up and kept him off the field for long stretches as the Ute offense sustained some time-consuming drives.

Utah quarterback Cam Rising, named the game’s MVP, completed 22 of 34 passes for 310 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. 

“Cam Rising was outstanding. He’s our leader,” Whittingham said. “As Cam goes, so goes the offense. He was on target tonight.”

In the second half, Rising absorbed a big hit while scrambling. His helmet was knocked off and somehow he held onto the ball. He popped right back up and smiled. 

Rising scored the game-winning touchdown and two-point conversion against USC at Rice-Eccles in mid-October, and he vanquished the Trojans again. 

Williams may still win the Heisman Trophy, but Utah has its back-to-back Pac-12 championships and Rose Bowl berths.