USC's Caleb Williams has Heisman moment in impressive win over Notre Dame

LOS ANGELES — After Caleb Williams’ latest bit of magic, a dazzling display of back-pedaling improvisation that turned a certain sack into a 23-yard strike, a thunderous chant arose from the awestruck Coliseum crowd.

“Heisman! Heisman! Heisman!” USC students roared.

A few plays later, after scoring the second of his four touchdowns, Williams let it be known that he agreed with those sentiments. Goaded by his teammates, he celebrated as he ran to the sideline by extending one arm, lifting a knee and striking the classic Heisman pose.

Williams made a convincing case that he deserves the Heisman while piloting USC to an impressive 38-27 victory over historic rival Notre Dame. The dual-threat quarterback did everything but conduct the marching band and sing the national anthem on Saturday night 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 twist, turn 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.

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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 noted proudly during his press conference. The other pinned Notre Dame back at its own 10-yard line.

Asked if his quarterback would now be punting full-time, 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 interference 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 34 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.”

USC quarterback Caleb Williams threw for 232 yards and a touchdown while also running for three scores against Notre Dame on Nov. 26, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
USC quarterback Caleb Williams threw for 232 yards and a touchdown while also running for three scores against Notre Dame on Nov. 26, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

It boosts Williams’ Heisman hopes that other contenders didn’t exactly take advantage of the national limelight on the final Saturday of the college football regular season. Ohio State’s CJ Stroud, the midseason Heisman favorite, threw a pair of costly interceptions in his team’s 22-point loss to Michigan. Blake Corum, Michigan’s star running back, carried the ball only twice against the Buckeyes because of injury. Bo Nix, Oregon’s heralded quarterback, failed to convert a key 4th-and-1 during the Ducks’ epic fourth-quarter collapse against Oregon State.

Hours later, in front of a primetime TV audience, Williams propelled USC one win closer to its first College Football Playoff appearance since the new postseason model's 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 the Trojans' 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. On the other hand, USC’s lone blemish this season came by a single point, a 43-42 mid-October loss at Utah that the Trojans will have the chance to avenge on Friday night.

Previously surging Notre Dame hoped to hand USC its second loss on Saturday, but a pair of second-half turnovers waylaid the Irish. First, quarterback Drew Pyne fumbled on Notre Dame's opening possession of the second half, halting 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 again 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. Some of his receivers punctuated his final touchdown run by approaching Williams one by one and pantomiming placing a crown on his head.

“I’ve never seen nothing 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.”