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LAS VEGAS — Must be the Money!
Utah receiver Money Parks caught a pass from quarterback Cam Rising and escaped a group of defenders early in the third quarter. All that was left in front of him was green grass on a 57-yard touchdown run to give No. 11 Utah its first lead, 24-17, in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium on Friday night.
Parks' touchdown capped off a 21-0 Utah run after the team trailed 17-3 in the first half to No. 4 USC. It was just the beginning of what was to come from the designated visiting team.
Utah's defense gave up only 1 yard to the Trojans in the third quarter and started off the fourth quarter with a 45-yard field goal to extend the team's lead by 10 against a team looking to make the College Football Playoff.
Trojans quarterback and Heisman Trophy favorite Caleb Williams, who was limited in the second half with a hamstring injury, found a way to stop the bleeding for a moment and used a nine-play, 75-yard drive to get his team back in the end zone with just under 11 minutes left to play.
But Rising wasn't done and found tight end Thomas Yassmin streaking down the sideline on the ensuing series. The former Australian rugby player had one defender in front of him, who met him with contact before Yassmin brushed him aside for a 60-yard touchdown to reclaim a 10-point lead.
USC battled back again and got into the red zone, but Utah safety RJ Hubert picked off Williams at the 10-yard line and then Ja'Quinden Jackson escaped for a 53-yard rushing touchdown on the ensuing drive end all hopes for the Trojans were lost.
For good measure, Micah Bernard added a 23-yard rushing touchdown at the end of the game, and Utah went on to claim a 47-24 win over the Trojans and back-to-back Pac-12 championships in front of a sellout crowd of 61,195 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
Can you smell the roses, Utah fans?
"Players never stopped believing," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "I mean, they had a great attitude going into this game. They were not going to be denied.
"Great job by our players repeating as Pac-12 champs. What more can you say? It's been a good last 12 months. Excited to go to the Rose Bowl again. Got to keep the good luck hair for another month now, so you have to deal with that," he added, joking about his long hair. "Can't cut it now. But we're excited. We're excited. I'm proud."
It was a win in the end for the Utes, but the game was anything but easy in the first half for the designated visiting team.
With 11:56 left to play in the first half, Jaylen Dixon caught a pass from Rising, but then fumbled the ball and USC recovered with a 17-3 lead. At that moment, the belief Utah could rally back seemed bleak. The Utes could do little to slow down the Trojans, and Williams had no problem picking apart the defense.
How was Utah going to stop USC this time?
It didn't have the same feel as in October at Rice-Eccles Stadium when Utah mounted a comeback to beat the Trojans 43-42 with a late 2-point conversion by Rising. It was a realization that USC would be lifting the Pac-12 championship trophy and seeing their ticket stamped for the College Football Playoff.
In the words of ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso: "Not so fast, my friend."
Utah's defense forced USC into a three-and-out series after the fumble and forced the Trojans to punt — their first of the night.
And Rising went to work.
The Ventura, California, native used an 11-play, 63-yard drive that was capped off by a Ja'Quinden Jackson 8-yard rushing touchdown to cut the lead to 7 with just under four minutes left to play in the first half. Suddenly, it was a game again.
Utah's defense then held strong as Gabe Reid picked up a key sack for a 7-yard loss and USC was held short of the first-down marker on third down to force another punt. And Rising delivered again with a drive that ended with a 4-yard toss to Dixon for a game-tying touchdown to go into the halftime break.
"Obviously, disappointing night for us," USC head coach Lincoln Riley said. "You come as far as this team has come and this program has come in the last 12 months, you get that close to winning a championship, possibly much more. Obviously ro not get it done, it's a tough pill to swallow.
"When you get to the top like this, these games that have so much riding on them, it takes so much to get here, especially where we started from. To get here and not get it done, not play our best, very, very disappointed."
Rising, who was named the game's most valuable player by the media, threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns in the win, and Jackson added 105 yards and two touchdowns on the ground to lead the rushing attack. In all, Utah's offense put up 533 total yards of offense, including 310 yards through the air.
"I want to give Utah a lot of credit," Riley said. "They battled their way to get back into this game, did a tremendous job. They played better than us today. They certainly deserved to win tonight. They were definitely the better team tonight. I want to give their coaching staff, their players a lot of credit. They certainly deserve that."
For Rising and his team, "It was destined," he said. "That's what it felt like."
Though Utah's offense deserved much of the credit Friday night, it was Morgan Scalley and the defense that adjusted and limited the Trojans after a rough first quarter. Utah managed seven sacks against Williams and had five key pass breakups to limit USC's damage in the end.
Hubert's interception at the end was just icing on the cake for a Utah team that almost missed out on the chance to defend its Pac-12 title.
"We talked about imposing our will tonight," Rising said. "That's really what we wanted to go out and do."