LOS ANGELES — After Caleb Williams’ latest magic, a dazzling display of back pedal improvisation that turned a certain sack into a huge pass, the stunned USC crowd showed their appreciation for the Trojans’ quarterback.
“Heisman! Heisman! Heisman!” A pocketful of fans chanted.
Williams extended its lead in the race for an individual award in college football on Saturday night by leading No. 6 USC to a 38-27 victory over rival No. 15 Notre Dame. The Heisman frontrunner did everything but lead the band or sing the national anthem as the Trojans improved to 11-1 and solidified their case to make the College Football Playoff for the first time.
It started with Williams’ rare combination of arm talent, pocket awareness, and ability to extend play with his feet. He caught 18 of 22 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown, many of his longest passes coming on plays as Notre Dame’s pass attackers appeared within reach, only to have him fumble, weave, and run away.
Williams also broke up Notre Dame’s overprotective defense by rushing for three touchdowns. With USC leading 10-7 late in the second quarter, Williams had the option to hand off Austin Jones or keep the ball himself. The Irish defense rushed Jones, so Williams pulled the ball back and rushed untouched up the middle for a 6-yard touchdown.
Then, on USC’s opening drive in the second half, Williams extended his team’s lead to 24-7 by doing exactly the opposite. The Notre Dame defense had to respect its guard so much that the handoff to linebacker Raleck Brown was basically exposed.
As if those championships weren’t enough, USC head coach Lincoln Riley allowed Williams to showcase some lesser-known talents. The Trojans lined up like they were going to go for it on a 4th-and-8 in the second quarter, but Williams instead unleashed a 58-yard dog bench, USC’s longest kick of the season so far. Williams jumped back in a similar situation midway through the fourth quarter and brought Notre Dame back to its own 10-yard line.
Riley also got a little sweet trying to fabricate a touchdown catch for the quarterback. USC’s first year coach called for a double reversed pass from receiver Mario Williams, but the Notre Dame defense sniffed it and Williams drew an offensive interference penalty in an attempt to break up a potential interception in the end zone.
Williams’ flurry of Heisman-deserved moments kept USC in a strong position to qualify for the College Football Playoff. The Trojans will finish the season with a conference championship and back-to-back marquee wins if they can follow up wins over UCLA and Notre Dame with a Pac-12 victory in the title game.
If Georgia, Michigan and UCSD remain undefeated by winning their respective conference titles, USC’s playoff fate could turn to whether the CFP selection committee favors its resume over that of one-loss Ohio State or two-loss SEC powerhouse. The panel placed USC sixth behind the Buckeyes and losing LSU in last week’s rankings, but that was before both teams lost Saturday.
Ohio State was no longer undefeated after Michigan came to Columbus and pulled away late to win 45-23. LSU fell out of final game contention completely when Texas A&M’s sub. 500 pulled a 38-23 upset. It can only bolster USC’s case that its only blemish this season came with a single point, a 43-42 loss in mid-October at Utah.
Notre Dame’s last hope of handing USC its second loss died with the Irish trailing by 10 and five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Kalen Bullock lunged in front of a Drew Payne pass and grabbed the fifth interception, sending the near-soldout Coliseum crowd into a frenzy.
From there, Williams added another Heisman moment. On fourth down and two, he faked a handoff and kept the ball himself for 16 yards. Receivers Taj Washington and Jordan Addison punctuated the moment by approaching Williams and placing Taj on his head.
In fact, there is still little doubt as to the identity of the best individual player in college football. After another breathtaking night, it looks like the time has come for Caleb Williams to be crowned.
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