Two hours before the Pac-12 championship matchup would be settled, Eric Gentry considered his options carefully when asked of whether he wanted a rematch against the team that spoiled USC’s perfect season.
After a two-second pause, the middle linebacker smiled wide.
“Happy to be in the Pac-12 championship,” Gentry said with a toothy grin after USC’s 38-27 win over No. 15 Notre Dame on Saturday at the Coliseum.
Friday’s Pac-12 championship game will include a chance for revenge for the Trojans, who can avenge their Oct. 15 loss to Utah (9-3, 7-2). The Utes got just enough help to back into the title game despite losing to Oregon two weeks ago, earning their spot in Las Vegas Saturday with a win over Colorado, Washington’s victory over Washington State and Oregon‘s loss to Oregon State.
Not only can the No. 6 Trojans (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) win their first conference title since 2017, they could potentially seal their spot in the College Football Playoff semifinals with a victory. With No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 LSU losing on Saturday, the path seems clear for a one-loss Pac-12 champion to finally end the conference’s playoff drought.
If USC can top its resume with a Pac-12 championship win over No. 14 Utah, the Trojans will have three consecutive ranked wins for the committee’s consideration and a road victory against No. 21 Oregon State.
USC enters championship with momentum from a win over Notre Dame Saturday night. Here are three takeaways from the game:
Ready for the spotlight
While Caleb Williams stole the show with four touchdowns, a Heisman pose and an imaginary crown ceremony, running back Austin Jones’ contributions helped define the game.
The Stanford transfer rushed for a career-high 154 yards on 25 carries, helping USC roll up 204 yards on the ground. Jones has rushed for season highs in back-to-back weeks since Travis Dye’s season-ending injury.
Seeing their leading rusher get carted off the field could have cast a pall over the team for weeks. Instead, Jones stepped up effortlessly.
“I love this game, I love this team and no matter what, I told them at the beginning of the season, I’m going to give it everything I got no matter what I gotta do,” Jones said. “Whether it’s a major role or not as a major role, it doesn’t matter to me.”
Jones totaled just 65 rushing yards in the five games prior to Dye’s injury. He faded into the background, in part, because of inconsistent pass protection, but seeing him shine as the leading back has come as no surprise to the Trojans.
“Travis and Austin were 1A and 1B,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “We’re very fortunate to have some really good backs in there and Austin stepped up. He ran physical tonight. You talk about establishing the run game. That, to me, was the game.”
Run game battle
He’s known for high-octane offenses, electric quarterbacks and dynamic receivers. But don’t accuse Riley of coaching an all-finesse team.
While Notre Dame’s offense carried a reputation for physicality, it was the Trojans who won in the trenches. USC held the Irish to 90 rushing yards on 26 carries. It was Notre Dame’s third game under 100 rushing yards this season after entering the game with a 191.2-yard average.
“Notre Dame traditionally is a physical, pounding type of team and Coach Riley was just like, ‘Hey man, we’re that team,’” Jones said. “We have to embrace that as well. We have to go out there and show everybody who we actually are. We’re not just a team that’s all about the flash, glitz and glamour, we really get in the trenches and really work.”
USC notched its fourth game of at least 200 rushing yards this season. Riley said he was “sick and tired of hearing how we were going to get pounded in the run game.”
“That didn’t happen,” he added defiantly.
Six weeks ago, Gentry could only hop into the USC huddle on one leg, helpless as its defense was drubbed by Utah.
It seemed at the time like a critical blow to a defense desperate for playmakers. But by the time Gentry made his return from injury Saturday, USC was on the brink of the College Football Playoff semifinals — and its defense was a big reason why.
“It’s a big difference,” defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu said of Gentry’s return. “EG is just a great player, y’all know that already.”
When he first injured his ankle in October, it wasn’t immediately clear to Gentry he’d be back this season.
“I felt it click, so I thought it was something different,” Gentry said. “But it was OK, I’m happy to be back helping the team as much as I can.”
Gentry’s return played a part in that resurgence against Notre Dame, as the inside linebacker led USC in tackles (nine) and forced a fumble.
“I could be anywhere, but I’m in L.A., playing in the Coliseum,” Gentry said. “I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else so I’m happy to just be here.”