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Caleb Williams shines as concerns over USC’s defense linger in win over Arizona State

USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws on the run against Arizona State.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws on the run against Arizona State during the third quarter of a 42-25 win at the Coliseum on Saturday. The Trojans improved to 5-0 with the win.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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The questions came bearing down on USC’s star quarterback like blitzing defenders, lingering all week in the wake of his worst performance yet as a Trojan: What exactly happened to Caleb Williams in Corvallis? And how might he respond when faced with adversity for the first time?

The answers spoke volumes as to where sixth-ranked USC might wind up in the coming months. But his coaches and teammates had side-stepped any such insinuations, shaking their heads at the very notion Williams might falter. Still, by Saturday night, those concerns from the Trojans’ narrow win at Oregon State remained unanswered by Williams, until the sophomore quarterback took it upon himself to shrug them off.

Williams was asked to mount escape after escape Saturday during a 42-25 win over Arizona State. This time, however, he put the entire team on his back to do so, dragging along an inconsistent Trojans defense, an iffy offensive line and a quiet ground game.

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Arizona State transfer Eric Gentry has a “physically different” body frame that has allowed him to be a defensive force in the middle of the field for USC.

Sept. 30, 2022

“Once-in-a-lifetime kind of dude right there,” running back Travis Dye said of Williams.

Williams spent most of Saturday night on the run, stopping and starting, diving and darting past one defender after another like few other college quarterbacks could. He threw one blitzing Sun Devil over his shoulder and slipped past the outstretched arms of countless more. He threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns while adding 44 yards and a touchdown on the ground, largely because he had no other choice but to take off.

“Got us out of trouble a couple of times,” Riley said of Williams. “His being able to evade people in the pocket the last two weeks has been really impressive, and I thought he really threw the ball well tonight. Balls were on target, on the money. Gave our guys a lot of chances to make plays. He was a tremendous playmaker for us.”

The victory silenced any concerns about Williams, all while raising other questions about USC (5-0, 3-0 Pac-12).

USC’s defense left much to be desired during first half as Arizona State moved the ball up and down the Coliseum field at will. The Trojans struggled to stop the run at the start, as the Sun Devils averaged 6.3 yards per carry before halftime.

It clamped down after halftime, allowing just a single touchdown drive and 113 yards before securing the game with a Calen Bullock interception.

USC wide receiver Mario Williams runs after a catch against the Arizona State defense in the first quarter Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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But after a strong showing that kept USC afloat against Oregon State, questions about its defense don’t seem to be going anywhere — especially with two of the Pac-12’s more capable offenses on tap during the next two weeks.

“Obviously was disappointed in how we played for the bulk of the night,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said.

A matchup with Arizona State seemed as ideal of a get-right opportunity as any other in the Pac-12, with its coach already fired and its season already sliding into indifference.

Disaster nearly struck on USC’s first drive, as a third-down snap slipped through Williams’ hands, forcing the quarterback to flee the pocket amid the chaos of a broken play. But Williams dodged one tackle, then another, before scrambling for a fortunate first down.

It was a fitting start as Williams continually found himself in compromising positions that he was forced to escape. More often than not, he managed to slip free anyway, leading USC to three touchdowns on its first three possessions.

During the first drive, Williams completed his next five passes after his near fumble, as USC’s offense drove the field with relative ease, picking up the pace to keep Arizona State off-balance. Williams capped the possession with a one-yard score, the fourth time in five weeks USC has scored on its first drive of the game.

USC wide receiver Jordan Addison signals for a first down after making a catch against Arizona State's Timarcus Davis.
USC wide receiver Jordan Addison signals for a first down after making a catch against Arizona State cornerback Timarcus Davis in the third quarter Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

But Arizona State responded with an opening statement of its own, rolling over USC’s defense, as Emory Jones hit a wide-open Xazavian Halladay streaking downfield for a 29-yard touchdown. The easy score proved an ominous sign of what was to come for USC’s defense.

“It just wasn’t quite us, wasn’t quite the edge we’re used to playing with,” Riley said.

Arizona State didn’t let Williams off as easily in subsequent drives. It ratcheted up the pressure, regularly disrupting his place in the pocket. Still, the Trojans quarterback usually proved too slippery for the Sun Devils to handle. On one third down, he flipped a charging rusher over his shoulder, before scampering to safety past the first-down marker. A few plays later, while sprinting away from pressure, he fired a bullet to Mario Williams in the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown.

The pressure continued to pick up as USC opened its next drive inside its own five-yard line. Still, Caleb Williams managed to stay upright amid the chaos before delivering a jump pass along the sideline to Jordan Addison, who finished with 105 yards receiving. Williams’ escape jump-started a scoring drive, this one over 10 plays and 94 yards, ending with a Malcolm Epps touchdown.

USC coach Lincoln Riley called Brett Neilon leading a surge behind Caleb Williams for a key fourth-down conversion one of his favorite plays ever.

Sept. 27, 2022

But each time Williams spun out of trouble to lead the Trojans on a touchdown drive, their defense offered its own troubling response. Like Caleb Williams, Jones slithered his way out of more than a few arm tackles, one of which he barreled through for a second-quarter score that cut USC’s lead to four just before the half. He finished with 243 yards and two scores, one through the air.

Williams ultimately was too much for Arizona State to handle, even after he handed over the Trojans’ first turnover of the season to the Sun Devils on an interception in the corner of the end zone.

By then, however, the glaring questions already had been answered, well enough at least to leave Saturday with a fifth consecutive victory.

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