LOS ANGELES — After Caleb Williams’ latest act of magic, a scintillating display of backward kicking improvisation that turned a particular sack into a great passing game, the awestruck USC crowd showed their appreciation for the Trojans quarterback.
“Heisman! Heisman! Heismann!” chanted a bag of fans.
Williams extended his lead in the race for college football’s most coveted individual honors Saturday night by leading No. 6 USC to a 38-27 win over rival No. 15 Notre Dame. The Heisman frontrunner did everything but conduct the marching band or sing the national anthem as the Trojans improved to 11-1 and reinforced their arguments to make the college football playoffs for the first time.
It started with William’s rare blend of arm talent, pocket awareness and the ability to extend plays with his feet. Hitting 18 of 22 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown, he scored many of his longest completions in games where Notre Dame’s pass rushers seemed to have him in their hands only to see him bobbing, weaving and sliding away.
Williams also hit Notre Dame’s overwhelmed defense by going for three touchdowns. With USC leading 10-7 late in the second quarter, Williams had options to run back Austin Jones or keep the ball himself. The Irish defense swarmed to Jones, so Williams pulled the ball back and ran untouched to the center for a 6-yard touchdown.
Then, on USC’s opening second-half drive, Williams extended his team’s lead to 24-7 by doing the exact opposite. Notre Dame’s defense had to respect its keeper so much that a handoff to Stau Raleek Brown was basically exposed.
As if those exploits weren’t enough, USC coach Lincoln Riley Williams allowed some lesser-known talent to showcase. The Trojans lined up like they were going to try fourth and eighth in the second quarter, but Williams instead unleashed a 58-yard pooch punt, the longest USC punt of the season so far. Williams poked again in a similar situation midway through the fourth quarter, pinning Notre Dame at his own 10-yard line.
Riley also got a little too cute trying to craft a touchdown catch for his quarterback. The USC freshman coach demanded a double back pass from wide receiver Mario Williams, but the Notre Dame defense scented it and Williams drew an offensive pass interference penalty to break up a potential end zone interception.
Williams’ barrage of Heisman-worthy moments kept USC in a strong position to reach the college football playoffs. The Trojans would end the season with a conference championship and back-to-back marquee victories if they can go ahead with a Pac-12 title game win after victories over UCLA and Notre Dame.
If Georgia, Michigan and TCU remain undefeated by winning their respective conference title games, USC’s playoff fortunes could depend on whether the CFP selection committee favors their resume over that of a one-loss Ohio State or a two-loss SEC power. The committee placed USC sixth in last week’s ranking behind the Buckeyes and LSU with two losses, but that was before those two teams lost on Saturday.
Ohio State is no longer undefeated after Michigan joined Columbus and pulled away late for a 45-23 win. LSU fell entirely out of playoff contention as Texas A&M posted a 38-23 excitement under .500. It can only bolster USC’s case that its only blemish this season came from a single point, a 43-42 loss at Utah in mid-October.
Notre Dame’s last hope of inflicting their second loss on USC died when the Irish were 10 and five minutes behind in the fourth quarter. Calen Bullock stepped in front of a pass from Drew Pyne and intercepted his fifth interception, sending a nearly sold-out crowd at the Coliseum into a frenzy.
From there, Williams added another Heisman moment. In fourth and second place, he faked a handoff and retained the ball himself for a 16-yard touchdown run. Receivers Tahj Washington and Jordan Addison punctuated the moment by approaching Williams and pantomiming a crown on his head.
In fact, there’s little doubt as to who is college football’s greatest singles player. After another stunning night, it seems it’s time to crown Caleb Williams.