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Canzano: Hats off to Utah — Utes beat USC for Pac-12 title


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LAS VEGAS — I won't soon forget the sight of Cameron Rising's Utah football helmet flying off and America wondering if his head might still be in it.

That happened on Friday night.

I won't forget USC star quarterback Caleb Williams trying to strike a Heisman Trophy pose and ending up with a limp. Or coach Kyle Whittingham showered with confetti and red roses. Or Utah rolling to a 47-24 win in a wild Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium.

"It was destiny," Rising said.

Say what you will about the Pac-12 Conference. It eats its own. It has a terrible allergy to the College Football Playoff. But the so-called "conference of champions" crowned another one after a stunning title game. The championship was won by a resilient, underdog team that busted through tackles, withstood a couple of haymakers, and refused to lose.

Anyone see the artwork on William's fingernails?

He had a four-letter expletive printed with a Sharpie on the nails of one hand and "U-T-A-H" on the other. After the game, a reporter raised his hand and asked Rising if anyone noticed that USC's QB had "an 'expletive' and 'Utah'" written on his fingernails.

"He had what?" Rising said, sitting forward.

The reporter nervously repeated the question: "On one hand, he had 'expletive' and on the other 'Utah.'"

"It said '(expletive) Utah' on there?" Rising shot back.

"Yes," the reporter said.

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

These teams came into the game with some glaring differences. One of them was playing for a playoff berth. The other just wanted another shot at winning the Rose Bowl. One was known for its high-octane offense and transfer-portal wins. The other? For good culture, cultivated by its wavy-haired coach.

When USC reeled off 228 yards of offense in the first 20 minutes of the game, we all thought the game might be headed to a blowout. The Trojans led by 14. Then, in the third quarter, they managed only 1 yard of offense.

USC moved three feet in 15 minutes, folks.

Utah's defense essentially turned Lincoln Riley's offense into a slug.

"Gotta give them credit," Riley said, afterward.

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham is doused in celebration before beating the USC Trojans in the Pac-12 Championship at the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. The Utes won 47-24.
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham is doused in celebration before beating the USC Trojans in the Pac-12 Championship at the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. The Utes won 47-24. (Photo: Ben B. Braun, Deseret News)

Utah is the Pac-12 Conference champion. That's two straight conference titles for the Utes. The same team that managed only 17 points in a dismal loss two weeks ago at Oregon, lit up the scoreboard against USC — amassing 533 yards of offense — and walked off with the championship trophy.

The quarterback's last name and the team's trajectory?

One and the same.

Rising.

Helmets off to the guy

The last time I saw Utah's star quarterback before Friday night was at Autzen Stadium a couple of weeks ago. He'd turned in a harmless effort in a loss. He was wearing a brace on one leg. Oregon quarterback Bo Nix, hobbled himself, chased Rising down after the game to wish him luck.

I walked past Rising and thought: "He sure had a nice run."

Turns out, he wasn't finished.

Neither was Utah.

"We had our backs against the wall," Whittingham said. "We got beat by Oregon ... these kids never blinked."

I watched Utah's coach in the postgame celebration on the field after the game. Whittingham wore a gray short-sleeved hoody and pulled on a "Pac-12 Champs" baseball cap. He stood to the side and watched Rising collect his game MVP honor, then stepped forward for the title-game trophy presentation.

Utah's players watched with roses clenched between their teeth.

Whittingham walked up, turned awkwardly, pausing in front of the trophy, looking for his "mark" on the ground. He didn't pump a fist or flex. Or whoop it up. He looked like a guy who had taken a wrong turn and somehow ended up on the stage. But let's be real — Whittingham engineered the entire title-game production on Friday.

He was the headliner.

"They were better than us tonight," Riley, the Trojans' coach, said after the game. Utah was a little better in a 43-42 win over USC on Oct. 15. Then, a lot better, with the title at stake, just seven weeks later.

Not just one night, coach, but two.

Utah didn't have the Heisman candidate on the field Friday against USC. It didn't have higher-ranked recruiting classes. It didn't have more lucrative NIL deals. Its head coach — the longest tenured in the conference — doesn't have a $100 million contract.

The Utes didn't have "revenge" on their minds, either.

Those things belonged to USC.

You know what Utah brought to the stadium on Friday?

The best team — coached by a guy who wouldn't let it quit.

(PHOTO GALLERY: UTAH'S WIN OVER USC.)

Read more of columnist John Canzano exclusively at JohnCanzano.com.

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John Canzano is a sports columnist and radio show host. He's worked at six newspapers and has won 11 Associated Press Sports Editors Awards in column writing, investigative reporting and projects. He lives in Oregon and hosts a daily statewide radio show there. Read more of his content at JohnCanzano.com.

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