LOS ANGELES — After Caleb Williams’ latest bit of magic, a dazzling display of back-pedaling improvisation that turned a certain sack into a big passing play, USC’s awestruck crowd showed its appreciation for the Trojans’ quarterback.
“Heisman! Heisman! Heisman!” a pocket of fans chanted.
Williams certainly looked Heisman-worthy on Saturday night while piloting USC to an impressive 38-27 victory over rival Notre Dame. The dual-threat quarterback did everything but conduct the marching band and sing the national anthem as the Trojans improved to 11-1 and strengthened their case to make the College Football Playoff.
It started with Williams’ rare mix of arm talent, pocket awareness and ability to extend plays with his feet. He hit 18 of 22 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown, many of his longest completions coming on plays where Notre Dame’s pass rushers seemed to have him in their grasp, only to have him bob, weave and slip away.
“You can never give up on a play when the ball’s in his hands,” USC receiver Jordan Addison said. “He’s going to extend a play and make something happen. All we have to do is get open, and he’s going to put it right there.”
Williams also gashed Notre Dame’s overmatched defense by rushing for three touchdowns. With USC leading 10-7 late in the second quarter, Williams had the option to hand to running back Austin Jones or keep the ball himself. The Irish defense swarmed to Jones, so Williams pulled the ball back and scampered up the middle untouched for a 6-yard touchdown.
Then, on USC’s opening drive of the second half, Williams extended his team’s lead to 24-7 by doing the exact opposite. The Notre Dame defense had to respect his keeper so much that a handoff to tailback Raleek Brown basically went uncovered.
As if those heroics weren’t enough, USC coach Lincoln Riley allowed Williams to showcase some lesser-known talents. Twice the Trojans lined up like they were going for it on fourth down, only to have Williams pooch punt. One of Williams punts was a 58-yarder — USC’s longest of the season, he proudly noted during his press conference. The other pinned Notre Dame back at its own 10-yard line.
Asked if his quarterback would be punting more after that performance, Riley quipped, “Hopefully we don’t have to punt anymore.”
Riley did get a little too cute trying to manufacture a touchdown catch for his quarterback. The first-year USC coach called for a double-reverse pass from receiver Mario Williams, but Notre Dame’s defense sniffed it out and Caleb had no choice but to take a penalty for offensive pass trying to break up a potential interception in the end zone .
“We’re going to have to go back to the film room on that one,” Addison joked.
While a touchdown reception would’ve been the maraschino cherry on top of Williams’ brilliant night, the Oklahoma transfer still did plenty to pad his Heisman lead and establish himself as a worthy winner. How many other quarterbacks have thrown 33 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions this season? How many other quarterbacks have taken a program that went 4-8 last season and restored it to national prominence? How many other quarterbacks have opposing coaches going out of their way to shower them in compliments?
Last week, UCLA coach Chip Kelly called Williams “as good a quarterback as I’ve faced in my college career.” On Saturday, Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman described Williams as “like a running back” but “he’s got the arm of a great quarterback.”
Williams’ heroics on Saturday night left USC potentially one win away from their first College Football Playoff Appearance since its 2014 inception. The Trojans would finish the season with a conference championship and back-to-back-to-back marquee wins if they can follow up victories over UCLA and Notre Dame with a Pac-12 title game victory over Utah on Friday night.
If Georgia, Michigan and TCU remain undefeated by winning their respective conference title games, USC’s playoff fate might come down to whether the CFP selection committee prefers their resume to that of one-loss Ohio State or a two-loss SEC power. The committee slotted USC sixth behind the Buckeyes and two-loss LSU in last week’s rankings, but that was before both those teams lost on Saturday.
Ohio State is no longer unbeaten after Michigan came to Columbus and pulled away late for a 45-23 win. LSU fell out of playoff contention entirely when sub-.500 Texas A&M pulled a 38-23 upset. It can only bolster USC’s case that its lone blemish this season came by a single point, a 43-42 mid-October loss at Utah.
A pair of second-half turnovers destroyed previously surging Notre Dame’s hopes of handling USC its second loss. First, quarterback Drew Pyne fumbled on the Irish’s opening possession of the second half, holding a promising drive and leaving his team still down by 10. Then, with the Irish still down 10 and five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Calen Bullock stepped in front of a Pyne pass and snared his fifth interception of the season, sending a near-sellout Coliseum crowd into a full-throated frenzy.
From there, Williams added one more Heisman moment. On 4th-and-2, he faked a handoff and kept the ball himself for a 16-yard touchdown run.
Williams’ teammates understood the significance of his four-touchdown performance on a national stage. Not only did some of his receivers peer pressure him into striking the Heisman pose after one of his touchdowns, they punctuated his final touchdown run by approaching Williams one by one and pantomiming placing a crown on his head.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, the things he does on a consistent basis,” receiver Tahj Washington said. “He’s got the crown, you feel me? In my book, he’s the best I’ve ever seen.”