Caleb Williams and USC run out of time and magic, fall at Utah for first loss

Utah quarterback Cam Rising scores a two-point conversion to lift the Utes past USC on Oct. 15, 2022.
Utah quarterback Cameron Rising scores on a two-point conversion run with 48 second left to put the No. 20 Utes ahead for good in a 43-42 win over No. 7 USC on Saturday night. Rising also accounted for five touchdowns. (Trent Nelson / Associated Press)

Six weeks of making the extraordinary seem all but cavalier had brought Caleb Williams to this climactic crescendo, with a sea of black roaring from enemy stands and any high hopes for USC’s season hanging impossibly in the balance.

All night — and all season, really — he’d successfully sidestepped danger at every turn, powering USC to a spotless 6-0 start through a sequence of stunning escapes and dazzling downfield passes you’d need to see to believe. In the process, he’d done everything possible to help USC escape when called upon.

But never had he quite been cornered like this, with under a minute remaining, the entire field in front of him and USC trailing by a point, the first deficit this season it wouldn’t escape, as Utah ultimately pulled off a stunner 43-42.

This time, it was the Utes who managed to deliver the most devastating of blows at the worst possible time, driving through thick and thin when it mattered the most, navigating three third downs and a fourth down at the goal line, before quarterback Cameron Rising broke the plane and broke the game open. A do-or-die, two-point conversion would give Utah its first lead of the game with just 48 seconds left.

USC needed a miracle. And for once, that was too much to ask of its quarterback.

To that moment, he had certainly done his damnedest. Williams completed 25 of 42 passes for 381 yards and five touchdowns, while adding 57 yards on the ground, in what proved to be one of the most dynamic performances of his college career to date.

But the final seconds ticked away too quickly. Desperate heaves fell to the turf.

“Through the last second, I thought we were still going to win the game,” said Travis Dye, who rushed for 76 yards and a touchdown.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws against Utah during the first half Oct. 15, 2022.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams passed for 381 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 57 yards, but it wasn't enough. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

The realization hit Williams in the waning moments, as the field filled with a sea of black. As he left, his head rolled back, tears welled in his eyes.

“We put in a lot of work for so long,” Williams said several minutes later, his eyes still puffy, the pain still fresh. “I’m gonna be honest, I hate losing. I really, really hate it, simply.”

He’d kept USC in it almost on his own to that point, pressing on in spite of a defense that was steamrolled for a season-high 43 points and 562 yards by Utah and its own dynamic quarterback in Rising. Not since November 2017 had USC allowed over 400 yards through the air, but Rising managed 415.

The Ventura native ultimately made mincemeat of USC’s defense, accounting for five touchdowns, including three on the ground. Coach Lincoln Riley called it USC’s worst tackling display of the season, largely because of Rising.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising looks for a receiver during the first half Oct. 15, 2022.
Utes quarterback Cameron Rising looks for a receiver. He threw for 415 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for an additional three touchdowns. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Ultimately, it was too much for USC to outlast. It couldn’t get past its season-high 12 penalties, including two questionable roughing-the-passer calls that twice kept critical Utah scoring drives alive.

Asked for his feelings about those particular penalties, Riley was blunt.

“The officiating was really poor tonight,” he said, “but we still should’ve won the game.”

After all, USC was still in control for nearly its entirety — up until it gave Utah the ball back one last time. Williams had already led one decisive drive that, on a different night, might’ve been the game-winner.

This time, he’d done it without Jordan Addison, USC’s top receiver, who injured his leg in the second half and was spotted walking on crutches after the game. Williams still completed five of his last six passes of that drive, finding Michael Jackson on a screen pass in the face of an all-out blitz. Jackson scampered 20 yards for a go-ahead score, leaving Utah with more than four minutes left to make its final statement.

It turned out to be too much time.

As the clock wound down, Riley considered taking USC’s timeouts. He chose to let it run instead, crossing his fingers that his defense could make a decisive stop. But the decision backfired.

“It’s close at that point because if you stop them, you potentially don’t have to do anything,” Riley said. “We got the ball back with plenty of time.”

It shouldn’t have gotten to that point, of course, not with USC and its quarterback setting Utah’s defense ablaze through most of Saturday’s loss.

Williams seemed primed for a magical night from the very start. On USC’s first third down of the game, Williams wriggled loose from the pocket to find only green grass in front of him. He took off, sprinting 55 yards before he was finally tripped up. Two plays later, Dye scampered eight more yards for the game-opening score.

Trojans wide receiver Mario Williams catches a pass next to Utes safety R.J. Hubert (11) in the first half Oct. 15, 2022.
Trojans wide receiver Mario Williams catches a first-half pass next to Utes safety R.J. Hubert (11). (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

By the next drive, the quarterback was full in control, standing comfortably in the pocket, sidestepping rushers and lasering passes all over the field. In a dizzying array of decoys, motions and play fakes, USC’s offense came to life, led by its quarterback and a coach determined to dig deeper than usual into his bag of tricks.

Williams led one scoring drive without needing a third down, capped by a two-yard Addison touchdown. He led another in just four plays, scrambling free before spotting Mario Williams wide open downfield for a 65-yard gain. Williams’ next pass went for another two-yard score to Kyron Hudson.

With its offense rolling, it seemed USC might once again sprint out to an insurmountable lead, leaving its opponent in its dust. Utah had already missed a field goal, and late in the first quarter, appeared to commit a back-breaking red zone interception to USC safety Calen Bullock. But the first of two roughing-the-passer calls — this one on Stanley Ta’ufo’ou — would negate it. Utah would rush in a score on the very next play.

A turnover that might’ve turned the tides entirely toward USC instead left Utah just enough room to get its foot in the door. Soon enough, it kicked it open.

Utah fans celebrate the team's win over USC on Oct. 15, 2022, in Salt Lake City.
Utah fans celebrate the team's victory over USC on Saturday night in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

It took just 45 seconds for Utah to score in the waning seconds of the half. It didn’t waste much time after halftime, either, marching down the field on a third consecutive touchdown drive and tying the score at 28.

Nothing seemed to stop Utah’s offense through that stretch, until Eric Gentry collided with Utah’s Micah Bernard inside the Trojans’ own five-yard-line and the ball popped out.

The fumble seemed like a moment where USC might take advantage.

It never did.

Instead, a night long ago circled as a fork-in-the-road moment for USC and its suddenly plausible playoff dreams, ended with the Trojans taking a wrong turn down a dark road. Still, the coach was confident they’d find a path back.

“This team has a real shot,” Riley insisted, in the wake of his first defeat at USC.

“If we handle this like I think we will, we got a real shot.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.