Gold: 5 reasons USC is primed for revenge against Utah in the Pac-12 title game
We’ve got the rematch of the century folks, to follow the game of the year in the Pac-12.
When No. 6 USC and No. 16 Utah meet on Friday at Allegiant Stadium for the conference championship game, we’ll bear witness to the best Pac-12 sequel since Bill Walton gave us Luke Walton.
This one is for all the marbles — at least for USC.
But Utah’s consolation prize with a win, a likely second straight Rose Bowl bid, isn’t exactly chopped liver either.
The teams met on Oct. 15 in arguably the game of the year in the Pac-12 if not the country, a 43-42 slugfest won by Utah in the last minute on a gutsy call by Kyle Whittingham. The venerated Utes coach went for 2 with 48 seconds left in an offensive slugfest, with Cameron Rising running it in for the game-winner.
That game was notable for more than just the epic finish, though. USC couldn’t cover Dalton Kincaid and couldn’t cover up a pair key injuries that might have cost them the game. This time, Utah is a bit hobbled and the Trojans are at their healthiest in ages.
That alone tips the scales to the Trojans.
So here are 5 reasons USC will celebrate a Pac-12 title — and a College Football Playoff berth — on Friday night in Sin City.
Cameron Rising still isn’t 100 percent
The Utes’ 1-point Week 7 win wasn’t just costly for the Trojans (more on that later), but for the home team as well.
In the midst of a monster performance that day — 30-of-44 passing for 415 yards and 2 scores, plus 11 carries for 60 yards and 3 touchdowns — Rising suffered a knee injury, one that would sideline him for Week 9 against Washington State, even after a bye week in Week 8.
He hasn’t quite looked right since that Trojans game.
Before Week 9, he’d been averaging, 267.3 yards per game; in his 4 starts since, he’s averaging 193.5. He also hasn’t scored a rushing touchdown since that game and has generally found himself not a threat on the ground, averaging fewer than 21 yards rushing the last month after averaging 64 yards his previous 3 games.
And neither is Dalton Kincaid
Kincaid had the game of his life the first time these teams met, catching 16 passes for 234 yards and a score. It wasn’t just the game of his life, it was one of the gutsiest, most impressive individual performances by a Pac-12 player in recent memory.
How will Kincaid follow that prime-time performance?
Well, it starts with him playing, and that isn’t a guarantee, according to Whittingham.
Kincaid was injured on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Rising against Colorado on Saturday, coming down hard and requiring medical attention before limping off to the locker room on his own power after a 5-catch, 102-yard, 1-touchdown day.
Whittingham said he expects Kincaid to be out there for the Utes after saying after the game that “hopefully” Kincaid would be fine, but even if Kincaid plays, he likely won’t be feeling 100 percent. Don’t forget: On Oct. 27 against Washington State, the league’s top tight end suffered a shoulder injury that cost him the Arizona game on Nov. 5 and left him banged up the following week.
Trojans getting healthy at the right time
In the crushing loss to Utah, USC had to deal with losing two of its most talented players for extended absences. Both wide receiver Jordan Addison and linebacker Eric Gentry, two of the top transfers in the country this year, suffered undisclosed injuries that went on to sideline them for weeks.
Addison returned full-go 2 weeks ago against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, though, and made his presence quickly known, catching 11 passes for 178 yards and a score in the 38-35 win, while Gentry got his most action in more than a month on Saturday against Notre Dame.
Yes, the Trojans lost an emotional and productive leader in Travis Dye, but Austin Jones has been filling in for him well.
Overall, USC is healthier than its been in months.
Caleb Williams is soaring
And even if the Trojans weren’t healthier across the board, their quarterback is playing like a Superman who could only get sacked by kryptonite.
The Heisman front-runner has been playing at an other-worldly clip over the past 6 weeks, and really, all season.
Odds to win the Heisman pic.twitter.com/fA8Cb7YE4n
— Barstool Sportsbook (@BSSportsbook) November 28, 2022
When Williams produces 4 touchdowns and it’s kind of disappointing, you know he’s risen the bar to obscene levels.
That’s what happens when you account for 20 touchdowns in a month-long span, which started with Williams’ captivating performance against the Utes. In the losing effort, Williams still threw for 381 yards and 5 touchdowns. Then he threw another 5 touchdowns the following week.
For the year, Williams has 43 total scores and just 3 interceptions, a heavenly ratio.
And unlike Bo Nix, who was hobbled when the Ducks and Utes met in Week 11, Williams enters Friday’s game totally healthy.
Tavion Thomas is gone
When USC and Utah met in 2021 in a 42-26 Utes win, Tavion Thomas was one of the heroes, rushing for 113 yards and a score on 16 carries on his way to a 1,100-yard, 21-touchdown season.
When the teams met earlier this season, Thomas was much less of a factor, gaining just 28 yards on 8 carries, continuing a disappointing pattern for the year. Battling personal losses and questions about his play and heart, Thomas fell to just 687 rushing yards and 7 scores this year before deciding to call it quits after injuring his toe against Oregon in Week 12.
While Thomas has had his struggles this year, this is still a kid who ran for 180 yards and 2 scores against Stanford in Week 11. Even though the Utes have reinforcements in the backfield, none are as productive as Thomas.