Caleb Williams reaches new heights as USC overcomes troubling defensive effort
They trekked to the desert in search of renewal, ready to finally move forward and put the pain of their first heartbreak in the rearview.
USC had spent the last two weeks working through its devastating defeat to Utah in early October, refocusing and retooling and rebuilding confidence where it could, readying for a fresh start to a final stretch run. But when the Trojans arrived in Tucson, there was nothing fresh about them. USC was as rundown by injuries as it had been all season, down its top two receivers, one of its top offensive lineman, its leading tackler and two of its regular rotational defenders.
USC still managed to slip out of the desert with a 45-37 victory over Arizona. But little about Saturday’s back-and-forth affair should leave the Trojans feeling renewed and rejuvenated about their trajectory. Other than the fact that USC no longer has to leave Los Angeles the rest of its regular season.
Once again, USC’s escape would require the umpteenth heroic showing from quarterback Caleb Williams, who set a career-high in yards passing (411) and threw for five touchdowns for the second game in a row, despite being without his top two targets, Jordan Addison and Mario Williams.
USC also had to escape another troubling defensive effort that saw the Wildcats rack up 543 yards, a week after USC allowed 562 to Utah. It was the first time the Trojans have allowed 500-plus yards in consecutive weeks since 2013.
The Trojans even weathered more costly officiating, as an end-of-half debacle cost them a chance to add at least a field goal before the half.
USC ultimately wouldn’t need it, not with its offense moving the ball at will. With its receiving corps dominated by reserves and its offensive line shuffled, the Trojans still tallied 621 yards, their most since November 2019.
“So many guys stepping up, you kind of lose count,” coach Lincoln Riley said.
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Among them was Kyle Ford, a touted prospect out of Orange Lutheran who’d waited the last several seasons for a night like Saturday. Ford finished with 114 yards and a touchdown — and nearly had another — capping a career night. He wasn’t the only one, as Tahj Washington also added 118 yards and two scores.
“We have such a good room that you have to come with your best every day,” Ford said.
USC’s receivers certainly gave their best, even if the Trojans’ prolific passing attack wasn’t enough to simply skate to victory.
Even after two fourth-quarter touchdown drives appeared to put the Wildcats away, quarterback Jayden de Laura continued to fight back, scrambling his way into big plays. He threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns, the last of which would cut USC’s lead to just eight points with 1:26 remaining.
“We still gave up too many big plays,” Riley said. “Listen, the quarterback here is a unique challenge. We had him dead to rights I don’t know how many times during the game.”
But as best De Laura tried, USC’s big plays would be too much to match. There was a 70-yard deep ball to Ford, a 53-yard end-around for Michael Jackson III, a 46-yard bomb to Washington. The Trojans had eight plays of 20 yards or more in total, half of which went for at least 45 yards.
Saturday didn’t start so explosively. USC opened the game with consecutive 10-play drives, grinding its way methodically down the field without its usual full complement of pass-catchers. Instead, Caleb Williams worked the perimeter with Ford, Terrell Bynum, CJ Williams, Jackson and Kyron Hudson, the five of which had combined for just 11 catches coming into Saturday.
Still, Caleb Williams had little issue finding his rhythm with a fleet of reserves. By the end of the first quarter, USC’s quarterback had already completed 12 of 15 passes for 159 yards and involved seven receivers. He hit freshman Raleek Brown for a six-yard touchdown on a swing pass in the first quarter and laced a bullet pass to Brenden Rice in the back of the end zone at the start of the second.
Arizona stayed close, even pulling ahead early after its first scoring drive. But the Wildcats watched two near-scores slip out of their grasp — one a drop, the other an out-of-bounds catch — forcing them to settle for field goals. Another drive ended in USC territory with a turnover on downs.
USC was unable to take advantage at the time. Though, many would argue it was robbed of a chance to do just that by the referees.
With time running down in the half, Caleb Williams found Rice for a 34-yard gain. Rice was brought down at the 10-yard line, with the clock stopped at six seconds. But before the ball could be spotted officially, seconds were already ticking away. By the time Caleb Williams hurriedly snapped the ball, the clock had already hit zero.
A furious Riley railed into several referees, as Arizona’s sideline emptied. The refs offered no answers at the time.
“The explanation given to me at the beginning of the third quarter was they obviously didn’t handle it properly,” Riley said. “But anybody knows that watching it.”
Caleb Williams and USC outlasted a determined Arizona team 45-37 behind a relentless offense that amassed 621 total yards. Travis Dye rushed for 113 yards.
The chaos at the end of the half ultimately wouldn’t shake the Trojans, who rode their first-half fury to a four-touchdown surge in the second. The fact that they were able to hang on at all, without four starters, as well as several other key contributors, was enough for Riley, considering the context.
“I just think the mindset of this team was in a really, really good place tonight,” Riley said.
“There are going to be plays we want back and things we have to do better, but if our mindset stays that way, we’re going to keep making progress, we’ll get a couple of these guys back, other guys are going to continue to step up, and we need to be ready to surge right here.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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