The moment it dawned on Justin Dedich that this USC season was destined to be special came seven weeks ago in Salt Lake City, amid the devastation of its first and only defeat.
USC’s 43-42 loss to Utah last month landed like a gut punch. As the Trojans filtered into the visitor’s locker room of Rice-Eccles Stadium, the senior captain was struck by the scene. Emotions from the last-minute defeat lay bare. Players sat at their lockers in tears. But behind their puffy eyes, Dedich saw something he’d never seen in his previous four seasons at USC.
Not sorrow or indifference in defeat, but determination.
“It was a different mindset from this team,” Dedich said. “Some teams … they wouldn’t think about it, one loss. They’d be onto the next. But we were upset. It built a fire in us.”
USC coach Lincoln Riley could feel it, too.
“If we handle this like I think we will,” Lincoln Riley said that night, “we got a real shot.”
Seven spotless weeks later, that shot has never been so real for USC. The Trojans sit just one win away from not only their first Pac-12 title since 2017, but also their first invite to the College Football Playoff semifinals. All that stands in the way Friday is the one team that lit the fire under them in the first place.
For Utah, the first meeting between the two teams this season served as its own turning point of sorts. After allowing USC’s offense to run wild in the first half, Utah’s defense clamped down in the second. It didn’t let up for the next five weeks, holding five Pac-12 opponents to an average of just 17 points and 271 yards per game. Both of those rates, spanning a full season, would rank in the top 10 nationally.
“Since that point, we’ve been really stingy on defense,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
USC has found its own stride defensively in recent weeks, holding three of its last four opponents to 135 or fewer rushing yards. It’ll need every ounce of that progress to hold off the Utes’ rejuvenated rushing attack.
A routinely strong rushing team, Utah has owned perhaps the best rushing attack in college football during the past four weeks, averaging 281 yards per game on the ground while tallying 13 touchdowns. Its lowest rushing output of the season came in its first meeting with USC; though, as Utah racked up 424 yards through the air that night, there was little need for a ground game.
This time around, Riley reminds, neither team is likely to follow the same blueprint.
“We’ve challenged the guys to reset, to understand that this game is going to be a different game — a different challenge, a different setting,” Riley said, “and you have to be ready to respond to that.”
USC’s response will presumably include a far different plan for tight end Dalton Kincaid, who shredded the Trojans’ defense for 17 catches and 234 yards. He’s tallied just 292 yards across four games since and could be limited this week by an injury he suffered last Saturday.
But his stellar October showing still lives on, rent-free, in Alex Grinch’s nightmares.
“If he makes big-time catches, and we don’t tackle him, I know exactly what’s going to happen on Friday,” USC’s defensive coordinator said of Kincaid.
USC will have its own wrinkles ready for the rematch, the most effective — and obvious — being the addition of a healthy Jordan Addison, who was injured in their last outing. A more robust rushing attack could also be in order, after the Trojans ran a season-low 29 times in their lone loss.
Still, more than likely, the promise of a Pac-12 title and playoff run will rest on the right arm and improvisational magic of USC’s Heisman-bound quarterback, Caleb Williams, a formula that’s worked quite well for the Trojans through an 11-1 campaign.
“They’re not going to flip a script, and we’re not either,” Riley said. “But, I think, teams evolve. You get challenged in different ways.”
That script for USC has been nothing short of a storybook in the seven weeks since their last meeting with Utah. The only question that now remains is whether it ends Friday in redemption … or more heartbreak.