In his 18th season, Whittingham has built a program in his own image — a straightforward former linebacker and coach’s son who shepherded the Utes from scrappy Mountain West overachiever to back-to-back Rose Bowl berths. His program is short on frills, routinely developing lightly regarded recruits into pros and preaching mental and physical toughness.
The contrast with the Trojans was hard to miss on Friday night.
The Trojans bolted to a 14-3 lead — and were primed to squeeze Utah. But U.S.C. squandered two opportunities: settling for a field goal after being set up with first-and-goal at the Utah 3, and turning the ball over on downs after recovering a fumble at the Utah 39.
The Utes evened the score at halftime when Cameron Rising, the championship game M.V.P. threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Dixon with two seconds left in the half. Given the reprieve, the Utes pounded the Trojans in the second half. Ja’Quinden Jackson and Micah Bernard, the running backs, weren’t the only ones bulling their way through arm tackles.
Receiver Money Parks shrugged off Latrell McCutchin’s tackle attempt and bolted 53 yards for a touchdown that put the Utes ahead for good. And after the Trojans had closed within 27-24, tight end Thomas Yassmin, an Australian former rugby player, sloughed off safety Calen Bullock’s attempted strip to finish off a 60-yard touchdown catch and run.
“At end of the game, we panicked a little bit,” said Riley, whose team allowed over 500 yards for the second time against Utah. “We got way too focused on trying to make big plays and strip the ball instead of trying to get them on the ground.”
It was the sort of shoddy tackling that the Trojans have overcome almost all season, thanks to a plus-23 turnover margin — by far the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision — and the wizardry of Williams.
But on Friday night, Williams popped a hamstring on a 58-yard run on the Trojans’ second touchdown drive. It took the Utes a while to notice that he was beginning to hobble and refrain from scrambling. Almost all night, they sent five rushers toward Williams, sacking him seven times and belting him many others.