LAS VEGAS — As the evening began, Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams danced away from Utah defenders and delivered darts all over the field, threatening to turn next week’s Heisman Trophy ceremony into a coronation and the rest of Friday night’s Pac-12 Conference championship game into a parade toward the playoff.
Hours later, Williams hobbled off the field with his stomach surely as knotted up as one of his hamstrings, gnawing on one towel and draping another over his head as he limped to the locker room.
The story of the Trojans’ resurrection as a national title contender runs through Williams, their transfer quarterback whose swagger is as big as his endorsement portfolio, and whose play has delivered at every turn.
It was no different on Friday night, when a 47-24 thumping by Utah in front of a rollicking sellout crowd left Williams and U.S.C. pained in so many ways.
Just as a two-touchdown lead evaporated in the desert air, so did the fourth-ranked Trojans’ hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff for the first time. Their defeat opened a backdoor for two teams that did not qualify for their conference title game and did not have to play this weekend, Ohio State and Alabama.
Perhaps also gone — for this year at least — is Williams’s chance of winning the Heisman Trophy. His fingernails, which had an expletive spelled out on one hand and U-T-A-H painted on the other, are also due for a manicure.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” said U.S.C.’s first-year coach, Lincoln Riley, whom Williams had followed from Oklahoma. “When you get to the top like this and these games have so much riding on them, it takes so much to get here — especially where we started from.”
The Trojans are in so many ways emblematic of the modern college football power, with the transfer portal acting as an accelerant for rebuilding under a new coach with offensive bona fides. That the program, which sank to 4-8 last season, has regained its shine now is particularly opportune. U.S.C. is headed to the Big Ten after next season to take advantage of a richer television deal, though the path toward an expanded tournament figures to be more challenging with programs like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State to run through.
Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff was more than happy to have U.S.C. represent his conference on its way out the door — a sign of how desperate the Pac-12, which hasn’t been in the playoff since the 2016 season, is to make its case for national relevance in the midst of its own television negotiations.
That so much of the discussion this week had centered around U.S.C.’s title contention — despite the Trojans losing in Salt Lake City in October — suited the Utes fine.
“We had a team meeting and took a vote whether we should even show up for kickoff because they were already going to the playoffs,” Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham said late Friday night.
But there may not be a conference more adept at eating its own than the Pac-12.
Only three times since 1998 has anyone made it through conference play unscathed — and each one of those teams played for a national title: Oregon in 2010, and U.S.C. in 2004 and 2005. In more recent years, as the quality of play has declined and a series of late-season losses each crippled the conference’s hopes of cracking the four-team playoff.
In 2018, Washington State had climbed to No. 8 in the rankings before an emphatic defeat to rival Washington knocked them from the chase. The next year, Utah was routed by Oregon in the conference championship game, which kept the Utes from the playoff. Oregon would have gone if it hadn’t been upset two weeks earlier at Arizona State.
And last season, Oregon had climbed to No. 3 — carried by a 9-1 record that included an early-season win at Ohio State — until a late-November thumping at Utah ended the Ducks’ hopes.
“We can empathize and understand what they’re going through,” Whittingham said, recalling the disappointment of losing in 2019. “But this is a competitive profession. You just worry about yourself; you can’t feel sorry for anybody else.”
In his 18th season, Whittingham has built a program in his own image — a straightforward former linebacker and coach’s son who shepherded the Utes from scrappy Mountain West overachiever to back-to-back Rose Bowl berths. His program is short on frills, routinely developing lightly regarded recruits into pros and preaching mental and physical toughness.
The contrast with the Trojans was hard to miss on Friday night.
The Trojans bolted to a 14-3 lead — and were primed to squeeze Utah. But U.S.C. squandered two opportunities: settling for a field goal after being set up with first-and-goal at the Utah 3, and turning the ball over on downs after recovering a fumble at the Utah 39.
The Utes evened the score at halftime when Cameron Rising, the championship game M.V.P. threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Dixon with two seconds left in the half. Given the reprieve, the Utes pounded the Trojans in the second half. Ja’Quinden Jackson and Micah Bernard, the running backs, weren’t the only ones bulling their way through arm tackles.
Receiver Money Parks shrugged off Latrell McCutchin’s tackle attempt and bolted 53 yards for a touchdown that put the Utes ahead for good. And after the Trojans had closed within 27-24, tight end Thomas Yassmin, an Australian former rugby player, sloughed off safety Calen Bullock’s attempted strip to finish off a 60-yard touchdown catch and run.
“At end of the game, we panicked a little bit,” said Riley, whose team allowed over 500 yards for the second time against Utah. “We got way too focused on trying to make big plays and strip the ball instead of trying to get them on the ground.”
It was the sort of shoddy tackling that the Trojans have overcome almost all season, thanks to a plus-23 turnover margin — by far the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision — and the wizardry of Williams.
But on Friday night, Williams popped a hamstring on a 58-yard run on the Trojans’ second touchdown drive. It took the Utes a while to notice that he was beginning to hobble and refrain from scrambling. Almost all night, they sent five rushers toward Williams, sacking him seven times and belting him many others.
“When you see a quarterback being not as mobile as he should be or could be, you smell blood in the water and you start bringing the heat,” Whittingham said.
Still, Williams had his moments — scrambling away from pressure and hitting Jordan Addison behind the Utah defense on fourth down that kept the Trojans’ hopes alive in the second half.
“You ever have an old rubber band?” Williams said of his injured hamstring. “It kind of felt like that.”
He said he tried to play on, recalling what Kobe Bryant once said — that the game is bigger than anything he was feeling. In this case, though, the game couldn’t provide any comfort — only a reminder of the opportunity that the Trojans lost.