Los Angeles — USC’s College Football Playoff aspirations crashed with a thud Friday night when Utah blew out the Trojans, 47-24, in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Instead of playing in a potential CFP semifinal, 10th-ranked USC will now face No. 16 Tulane in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2.
Let’s sift through the wreckage of the Pac-12 title game and look ahead to the Cotton Bowl as well as some thoughts on the offseason.
1. The first time USC and Utah met, it was essentially a stalemate on the line of scrimmage. The Utes offensive line won its matchup with the Trojans defensive line while USC’s offensive line held up well against Utah’s defensive line.
On Friday night, the Utes flat-out whooped the Trojans on both sides of the line of scrimmage. USC’s defensive front had looked much better against the run in recent weeks against good rushing attacks from UCLA and Notre Dame. Even in the first meeting against Utah, USC held up fine against the non-QB runs.
But the Utes offensive line repeatedly opened some massive holes against the Trojans front. The result was 223 yards rushing on a 6.4-yard average. And when USC’s defenders were in position to stop those runs, Utah’s ball carriers — Ja’Quinden Jackson, Micah Bernard and quarterback Cam Rising — were more physical and broke tackles or fell forward through contact.
Rising was sacked just once in two games against USC, which led the Pac-12 in sacks through 12 games.
See ya in Dallas ✈️✌️ pic.twitter.com/Ao9azi4ICu
— USC Football ✌️ (@uscfb) December 4, 2022
The Utes now lead the conference in sacks after they recorded seven against the Trojans. USC’s offensive line was without All-America guard Andrew Vorhees, and quarterback Caleb Williams was limited because of his injured hamstring.
Vorhees’ absence forced USC to shuffle its line and play three players in spots they normally don’t line up at. That, coupled with Williams’ lack of mobility, resulted in the offensive line’s worst performance of the season.
USC’s offensive line had played well this season, but Williams evaded a lot of sacks and turned potential negative plays into big gains. That didn’t happen Friday night due in large part to Williams’ injury. The Utes stunts repeatedly got the best of the Trojans line.
There was also no threat of Williams keeping on the zone-read, which allowed Utah to key in on Austin Jones, who finished with 35 yards on 15 rushes. The offensive line never really opened any holes for Jones either.
After the game, Riley said he should have — and could have — stuck with the run game more. There were two instances where that seemed clear: when USC was up 14-3 and had first-and-goal from the 3 and called a run on first down then two pass plays before settling for a field goal. And on second-and-1 in the second quarter when Williams was sacked, which essentially killed that drive.
With the way the line was playing, though, I don’t know of any other situations in which the run would’ve paid dividends.
2. The future of the offensive line will be worth watching as the season comes to an end. USC will lose three starters from its 2022 group: Vorhees, left tackle Bobby Haskins and center Brett Neilon, who suffered an unfortunate injury in the fourth quarter and was carted off the field, ending his six-year career with the Trojans.
Last week, Vorhees and Neilon were highlighted in this space for what their contributions meant for the offense and the program this year.
Justin Dedich is a redshirt senior but will have the option to come back. That’ll be a decision to monitor. If he returns, Dedich can likely move to center, his natural position. Jonah Monheim will return after starting most of the year at right tackle. Monheim’s natural position is at guard. He played there once Vorhees left the Notre Dame game midway through the third quarter but had some issues against the Irish and Utah (three holding penalties in those two games).
Mason Murphy is viewed as one of the future starting tackles and played a lot — and played well — against Arizona, Colorado and UCLA. But Utah presented a much different challenge for the redshirt freshman, and he struggled Friday night and surrendered a few sacks. For USC, it’s imperative Murphy takes a step forward this offseason.
Cortland Ford will be an interesting player to observe, too. He opened the season as the starter at left tackle but injured his ankle in Week 2 against Stanford and basically fell out of the tackle rotation. If he returns next season, Ford could be one of USC’s starting tackles.
The Trojans will likely add some players through the portal to beef up their line as well.
3. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has become a major source of frustration for USC’s fan base after the porous defensive effort Friday night. The Trojans defense was never going to be good this season. The personnel isn’t good enough.
But aside from the Notre Dame game, USC’s defense got worse over the second half of the season. Yes, the Trojans’ tackling was bad Friday night, which suggests they were in position but not making plays. There were also receivers running in wide-open zones in coverage, and that happened frequently throughout the season. USC consistently gave up chunk plays on the ground too.
The Trojans defense allowed 203 plays of 10 yards or more this season. Only four programs gave up more. Two of them (Colorado and South Florida) fired their coaches midseason. Another was Georgia Southern, which is coached by Clay Helton.
USC’s defense allowed 3.9 points per game fewer this season than in 2021, but the difference between last year and this season in terms of yards per play was negligible (6.30 in 2022, 6.37 a year ago).
There seemed to be a wide disconnect between communication and execution all season long, and it never really improved.
There’s a chance USC finds some personnel upgrades in the portal or through recruiting this offseason, but they’ll likely lose Tuli Tuipulotu, who led the nation in sacks. So it’s no guarantee they’ll find someone who can make the same sort of impact.
4. Grinch did make Oklahoma’s defense better in his first few seasons with the Sooners, but he has yet to field an elite defense in four seasons with Lincoln Riley. As noted earlier, USC’s defense wasn’t going to turn into a solid unit overnight, and it will take more than a year to get it right.
The challenge for Riley and Grinch is the same they faced at Oklahoma: build a good defense to complement a great offense. Not that it can’t be done, but it’ll be an uphill climb to bring in the defensive talent necessary to win at an elite level when perception and reality are working against you on the recruiting trail.
5. USC skipped the traditional rebuild steps that we typically see across college football. The Trojans went from four wins to 11 and were just one victory away from a College Football Playoff appearance.
That was with a roster that didn’t seem all that close to Playoff caliber. Williams helped elevate the team into a contender. When he injured his hamstring, his ability to fix things disappeared.
Riley acknowledged after the game and throughout the season that there’s still plenty of work to be done with USC’s personnel. The roster has to be deep and talented enough to be able to weather the storm caused a key injury.
Take Utah, for example. Kyle Whittingham has been recruiting to his identity and style for nearly two decades. When Rising injured his knee in the first game against USC, the Utes were able to win without him at Washington State and were competitive with a hobbled Rising at Oregon. The Utes roster is well-rounded.
Riley inherited a messy roster when he stepped into the USC job last November. That’s why he sought to add so many players through the transfer portal.
6. When asked about Williams’ status Sunday afternoon, Riley said his quarterback has “a significant hamstring injury. It’s good we’re not playing probably in the next two to three weeks.”
He then added that they’ll try to rehab Williams’ injury and “hope to have him” in the Cotton Bowl, but the nature of the injury is “pretty severe.”
Williams told The Los Angeles Times that he’ll play in the Cotton Bowl.
Williams did not want to get taken out of the Pac-12 title game (and Riley didn’t take him out) even though he was clearly limited.
It’s the Trojans’ first New Year’s Six bowl game in five years, which is an accomplishment for the program — USC hasn’t played in a bowl game in three of the past four seasons. But the juice doesn’t seem worth the squeeze, especially if there’s risk of making the injury worse.
Also take into account that the Trojans will be without Neilon and might be without Vorhees on the offensive line. So we’ll see what USC decides to do.
7. Riley said he’s had a few conversations with some players, but at this point he doesn’t know of anyone opting out of the bowl game. There are two obvious candidates, receiver Jordan Addison and Tuipulotu. Addison was an All-American last season. Tuipulotu will be an All-American this season. Neither has anything left to prove on the college level.
Also, the transfer portal opens Monday. I expect USC, like all teams, will experience some attrition, so the roster could look thinner during bowl prep.
8. USC has opened as an early favorite (2.5 points) in the Cotton Bowl, but history is not on the Trojans’ side entering this one. The loser of the Pac-12 title game, which was instituted in 2011, is 0-10 all-time in bowl games. The only title game loser that hasn’t lost a bowl game was USC in 2020, which opted out of a bowl game during the COVID-19-shortened season.
Tulane is playing in its first major bowl since 1939 — this is a stage the Green Wave will relish. There’s a chance USC could be without three of its best players (Williams, Addison and Tuipulotu) and its two best offensive linemen (Neilon and Vorhees). So the Trojans will have their work cut out for them.
“If we’re truly serious about being the kind of program we feel like we could be, then this Cotton Bowl game against Tulane will be a great opportunity for us,” Riley said. “We need to embrace it and be ready to be at our best.”
(Photo of Caleb Williams: David Becker / Getty Images)