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Utah saved the receipts, and then made USC pay when it mattered most


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LAS VEGAS β€” Kyle Whittingham said his team took a vote whether to even come out onto the field at Allegiant Stadium to play in the Pac-12 championship game.

Everybody, he said, had already counted No. 11 Utah out. Friday night was about No. 4 USC locking up a College Football Playoff berth and its quarterback, Caleb Williams, using that forum to secure the Heisman Trophy.

So why even show up for the inevitable?

Whittingham's comments were made in jest but it highlighted the "disrespect" the team felt coming into Friday night's championship game. Utah was the defending Pac-12 champion, but USC was getting all the love.

He and his team understood it, in part, but they sat quietly in the background waiting for the moment to call up all the saved receipts β€” proving the multitude of people that stacked their support in USC's favor wrong.

"There was a lot of noise. … We definitely got the message loud and clear that a lot of people were underestimating us, not giving us much of a chance in this game," Whittingham said. "That's the wrong group of players to do that to. We've historically been a chip-on-our-shoulder type of program that's getting harder and harder to do the more success you have.

"You shook up a little bit of a hornets nest when that happened."

Utah had already delivered a blow to USC in October β€” the Trojans' only loss on the season β€” and they knew they could do it again.

"We already knew what we had to do," running back Ja'Quinden Jackson said. "It was just a regular game to us. Like, we knew we had to play physical. We knew that we had to stick together as one. It was just regular game to us."

And though Jackson said it was a "regular game," it was anything but for the defending Pac-12 champions.

It was a moment for Utah to stay at the top of the Pac-12 against a team that for years was considered to be creme de la creme of the conference. It was a game against a team that brought in some of the top skills players from around the country to build a super star offensive roster.

Oh, and it was a game against a team that spurned the conference in search for greener pastures. So it was anything but a regular game for Utah.

That was most noticeable when Utah quarterback Cam Rising commented on Williams' pregame ritual of painting an expletive directed toward Utah on his fingernails.

"I don't give a (expletive)," Rising said. "It is what it is, you know. You can do whatever you want, put whatever you want on your nails. I'm not going to judge you for whatever you do. Yeah ... hope he liked it."

That was preceded by the official Utah football account tweeting out a picture of Williams with back-to-back written on his nails. Several other Utah players took to social media to comment about money not being able to buy a championship ring.

Utah wasn't afraid of the high-powered USC offense, even when the team trailed 17-3 in the second quarter. It's a team that has given USC four out of its five losses over the last 10 years when it led by 14 points or more, according to ESPN.

"As gratifying as any season I can remember," Whittingham said. "We had our backs against the wall when we got beat by Oregon a couple weeks back. These kids never blinked, never flinched. We kept believing. Once we got the news after the Oregon game that there was a pathway that we could get to this game, our guys just were ecstatic."

And when Williams suffered a hamstring injury that severely hampered his ability to scramble β€” but not make dynamic throws β€” Utah brought even more pressure.

"When you see a quarterback become not as mobile as he could be or should be, you smell blood in the water and you start bringing the heat," Whittingham said. "I mean, that's the strategy you want to use. Caleb is a tremendous player, maybe the most difficult quarterback to sack that we ever played against. We banged him up, slowed him down."

It was a team telling USC that the Pac-12 still runs through Utah, even if nobody but those within the locker room believed it.

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer of University of Utah athletics β€” primarily football, men’s basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.

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