SALT LAKE CITY -- The late night Pac-12 games continue to be a great source for thrills, chills and upsets. Saturday night was no exception.
Pulling off something it had rarely done since moving to the Pac-12, Utah completed a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback to remain atop the South Division and keep alive its league title hopes.
Down four with just over two minutes left, Travis Wilson adeptly guided the Utes on a game-winning drive with a mix of downfield passes and timely runs. He nearly scored himself with just a few ticks left on the clock but was instead ruled down on the half-yard line. On the next play he rolled out and found Kaelin Clay in the flat for the score, sending a record crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium into a raucous celebration.
Both teams had a chance to put the game out of reach at times but never could create any separation. The Utes fumbled twice from the 1-yard line to cost them at least six points, and USC couldn't convert a short fourth down deep in their opponent's territory to seal the game. In a game for the taking though, it was the home team that made enough plays to win.
As was evident from the mass hysteria of fans who rushed the field, it was a far more meaningful victory to those in black and red. Utah became bowl eligible for the first time in three seasons and beat the Trojans for the first time since joining the league. It also kept the team atop the division standings with a huge game in Tempe next week against Arizona State that could decide, or at least help decide, the South.
Here are a few thoughts about some of the top players in the game:
Williams makes his presence felt
The highest-rated prospect in the game for many was probably USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams. He once again made his presence felt early and often despite often drawing a double team. He did a good job engaging with his blocker and then shedding them with some terrific use of his hands on many plays. He put some pressure on the Utes quarterback, but his primary focus for much of the game was keying on the Utah run game. Williams had two forced fumbles before halftime, a tackle for loss and an all-around disruptive game.
Just a junior, Williams continues to grow as a prospect and ideally will play the five-technique at the next level. In talking with a few of the scouts in attendance, there seems to be the belief he's a tad overrated (i.e. not an No. 1 overall player or top 10 pick like some have suggested), but that he still possesses the traits of a guy who can be a very early pick in the first round. Part of the issue is his role in the USC defense and lack of help from others.
Quiet night for Orchard
Utah defensive end Nate Orchard came into the game second in the country in sacks and was widely expected to put on a show against a Trojans offensive line that was young and had struggled at times this season. It was a quiet night for the Utes star, however, with his name not really being heard until the fourth quarter. He's got a quick first step but was too often engaged with an offensive lineman and failed to get off the block. While USC tried to chip him early in the game, they were able to handle him one-on-one more as the game went on. In short, he was not much of a factor rushing the passer, and as a result, Cody Kessler had plenty of time to throw, up until the final play of the game. More than anything, he appears better suited to play outside linebacker at the next level.
Cravens flashes rare ability at LB
While Williams was able to bring pressure but not get to the quarterback, USC safety/linebacker Su'a Cravens was able to bring down Wilson twice with a pair of big sacks. He came to the team as a safety and earned some freshmen All-American honors there last year. In part because of injuries and because of matchups, he's been bulked up and and run out at outside linebacker in recent weeks, finding quite a bit of success there as USC tried to stay afloat defensively. Saturday night was no exception. He was able to affect the passing game when dropping into coverage and help contain the outside running game the Utes tried to run.
I think it's clear his future in Los Angeles and at the next level is at outside linebacker, and his first-step quickness combined with terrific coverage skills could end up making him a star as he starts to learn the nuances. Given today's spread offenses, it might be hard to find anybody with a better skill-set than Cravens, and he's just a sophomore.
Quality effort from Allen
The yards were hard to come by on the ground for both running backs, but USC's Buck Allen started to get into a groove late in the second half. Coming into the game as the Pac-12's leading rusher, Allen had just 40 yards at halftime and was averaging a three yards a carry. He was a key part of the Trojans drive early in the fourth to retake the lead and also found some success in the passing game, showing off some good blocks when picking up blitzes and a good set of hands when slipping out into a pattern. Considering his average offensive line, he did well to get the yards he did against a tough front.
There's been some talk of Allen's NFL draft stock shooting up in recent weeks, but he doesn't flash in any one area. He's a more complete player than many tailbacks, however, and is a key to the Trojans' offensive success. He went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season thanks to his effort in the game and has topped 100 yards in every outing this year. In a league full of quality running backs, he might not be the best prospect, but he's the most complete guy at this stage.
Agholor outduels Anderson
Neither offense found much downfield success in the passing game, but USC wideout Nelson Agholor outdueled his fellow No. 1 receiver Dres Anderson during the contest. Agholor had a solid stat line with 10 catches for 110 yards, but it was his mistake -- stepping out of bounds on fourth down -- that ultimately cost Trojans the game. He's a savvy route-runner who has the athleticism to be a good NFL prospect, but Agholor is not yet a complete player. He's still on the thin side and does make mental mistakes when he doesn't concentrate. He might have had the better night, but he's far from the best in the Pac-12, as some thought at the beginning of the year.
As for Anderson, it was his quietest night in a long time for the Utes offense. He was limited to three catches for 30 yards and never did seem to create a downfield presence against a defense that often was in man coverage. Part of that was by design from the opposing sideline, but Utah never really seemed to make an effort to get its No. 1 receiver the ball.
Wilson ends up with last laugh
Neither quarterback in the game is likely to end up a high NFL draft pick, but Travis Wilson facing Cody Kessler was an underrated battle of Pac-12 signal-callers. Kessler had thrown only one interception during the season and tossed a school-record seven touchdowns during his last outing. His offensive line held up well most of the night despite losing its left tackle in the first quarter, and Kessler posted a solid stat line while generally picking apart Utah's zone defense. Still, he was often late with his throws and failed to connect on much over 15 yards down field. He can show flashes of being more than a game manager but too often misses throws when the team needs them most, taking the offense out of rhythm.
As for Wilson, he was uneven for most of the night but didn't seem to look over his shoulder after being removed against UCLA and not starting against Oregon State last Thursday. He came through in the clutch, delivering some good throws down the stretch and picking up tough yards with his legs when needed. The Utes have been plagued by issues at the position the past several years, but maybe the win over USC represented a turning of the corner for the program and for Wilson. He'll still need to stop short-arming passes and get more accurate, but it certainly seems as though he gives the Utes a chance to win the division for the first time ever. With Marcus Mariota throwing an interception Friday, Wilson became the last man standing in the country who has not been picked off this year.