LOS ANGELES — Caleb Williams has had better nights statistically. He’s scored more touchdowns, passed for more yards and completed more passes in other contests. But on Saturday night against a stout Notre Dame defense in prime time, Williams showed why the story of his season requires a three-dimensional explanation.
Despite the fact that his numbers are breaking USC single-season records, during a crucial 37-28 win over Notre Dame that kept USC in the playoff hunt, Williams solidified his position as a Heisman front-runner by showing, not telling.
On his biggest stage to this point, the sophomore quarterback danced, spun, skirted and evaded everything the Irish defense threw his way. Williams turned near sacks into explosive, downfield plays and potential disasters into highlights. The result was a dazzling performance that had the Coliseum gawking at every play before fans broke into chants of “Heisman” in unison.
“That’s what happens when you have a Heisman quarterback,” running back Austin Jones said. “I mean, it was unreal.”
Williams finished with four touchdowns on the night — three of them rushing — with 232 passing yards and a QBR of 97.6, his highest of the season.
At different points this season, Williams has shown how effective and explosive he can be with his arm, but the story on Saturday was how elusive he can also be with his legs. The Irish’s defensive line made their way into the backfield plenty of times, but aside from one sack, Williams was able to stay upright and avoid any miscues. The former Oklahoma quarterback didn’t really throw it away either — he only had four incompletions.
Instead, he always found a way to give a receiver a chance to catch one, or put his head down and do it on his own.
“I’ve obviously seen him do this a lot,” Lincoln Riley said postgame, before joking that he only disliked one decision he made: the sack. “I think there’s just a trust because a high percentage of the time he makes the right play on it.”
The trust Riley and Williams have between each other has helped produce a dream-like season that has USC at 11-1 with a chance to win a conference title and earn a playoff berth. It’s a striking turnaround from what was a 4-8 season for the Trojans last season. Having a Heisman contender in Williams has been a crucial part of it all, but Williams has tried not to lean into the chatter. This week, however, it’s been unavoidable.
“It’s kind of like, everybody lets everybody else talk about it,” Jones said. “We don’t really talk about it, but we all know. I mean, I’ll talk about it right now, I think he’s the best player in the country.”
Earlier this week, USC released a video campaign online while Williams’ teammates waxed poetic about him at practice. On Saturday, USC played the video on the jumbotron before the game, urging fans to get out the fan vote for Williams, who showed at least some acknowledgment of the award during the game. On his touchdown runs, Williams struck the Heisman pose not once, but three times.
When asked postgame about the pose, Williams deflected, saying his teammates urged him to do it so he was obliged. At one point, wide receiver Jordan Addison mimicked placing a crown on Williams’ head on the sidelines.
“He’s the one, so I had to crown him myself,” Addison said. “The bigger the stage is, the bigger he’s going to play.”
Addison has mentioned previously how much USC’s offense practices those scrambling plays in practice. The mentality that every skill player and offensive lineman has had to adopt is simple: You never know where Williams is going to go, but you know the play is never over when the ball is in his hands. On Saturday, every third play seemed to have a scramble. At one point during one play, Williams’ back was facing the rest of his team as he was almost brought down by a Notre Dame defender before turning the play into a 20-yard gain.
“It’s tiring,” Jones said with a smile of the scrambling. “I’m like ‘bro, where are you going to go?'”
It’s not just the escape that Williams makes look easy. It’s the ensuing throw — which often has to be on the run and across his body — or ensuing run where he turns a bad play into a great one.
“Extended plays are part of football,” Williams said. “My dad always talks about it, ‘take off, take off, take off.'”
It’s those instincts that have kept drives and games alive for USC all season and now have them on the precipice of accomplishing not just individual awards but team success too. Williams, more than most of the players on his team, is keenly aware of that.
“Last year I came from a team that we got to parts of the season and we finished pretty well,” Williams said. “But most of the guys here didn’t know what this feeling was, getting to the latter part and being in position to do something you always dreamed of. … The time is right now.”
After the game, Williams basked in the atmosphere. He made a lap around the Coliseum, signed autographs for kids, took pictures and greeted his dad, Carl, in the stands, who appeared to know what everyone else realized on Saturday night: The Heisman trophy is within Williams’ grasp.
The final tally on Williams’ regular season is 3,712 passing yards and 44 total touchdowns with only three interceptions. But whatever highlight reel they play during the Heisman ceremony in New York City will do more to state his case for the sport’s top individual award than any combination of numbers can.