LOS ANGELES – Under the lights of the Coliseum, in the shadow of Hollywood and in front of millions watching on television, Caleb Williams hoisted his left leg across his body, flung his left arm outward in a stiff-arm motion and tucked his helmet tightly against his right side.
Strike the pose, Caleb. Strike the poses
If there was any doubt as to the Heisman Trophy favorite entering Saturday, there is no doubt now.
It is no other than a strong-armed, headband-wearing, fleet-footed kid from Washington DC who, in no small feat, has taken this city by storm (after all, this is Hollywood).
Sure, sixth-ranked USC‘s 38–27 win over No. 15 Notre Dame, along with stunning losses from Clemson and LSU, cleared the path for the Trojans to advance to the College Football Playoff. But something else happened here in the cool, foggy night of Los Angeles.
A star wasn’t born here but a star shone here, streaking across the field in a dazzling performance against one of the country’s best defenses. He escaped so many would-be sackers that most of us in the press box lost count (12, 15, 20 even?). He did it not just through the air (232 passing yards) or on the ground (three scores) but off his feet. Williams punted twice, booming a USC season-long 58-yarder in the first half and pooching another in the second half that was downed at the 10.
Yes—he can punt, too!
Williams made sure to notch every portion of the stat sheet, even the one for penalties. He was called for, of all things, offensive pass interference when, during a quarterback throwback attempt, he thrust his leg into the air as the ball came whistling down, possibly preventing an interception and drawing the yellow hanky.
Like most Heisman greats, he played through pain as well. During his leg-thrusting penalty, Williams got kicked in the you-know-whats. He overcame the issue with ease, unleashing an electric performance against a defense that entered ranked 17th in the nation.
The Golden Domers came, saw and left as another victim of what’s turned into quite the tandem in Hollywood: Lincoln and Caleb. Coach and quarterback. Both having darted out of Norman, Oklahoma, for the bright lights of this West Coast jewel.
And now here they are, 11-1 and a single victory in the Pac-12 championship game away from advancing to the CFP.
Less than 12 months into their tenure here, who’d a thunk it?
“You start putting it together as fast as you can,” Riley said of the takeover. “I can’t say, ‘Yes, I knew this was going to happen,’ but I don’t believe in putting limits on what you can accomplish.”
Overshadowed by Williams’s performance was a USC defense that, to the surprise of many, locked down Notre Dame’s rushing attack (90 yards), and, to no surprise at all, created two more turnovers (their nation-leading turnover margin is now +22 : 26 gained and four lost).
There was some pre-game motivation going on here, according to Riley. USC’s defense, which entered ranked 94th nationally, has been a pin cushion for the critics.
“We got sick and tired of hearing how well we were going to get pounded in the run game,” Riley said afterwards.
The defense showed out in force and so did the fans, more than 72,000 of them getting a memorable Heisman-worthy show from a 20-year-old who one year ago played at Oklahoma. Will.i.am, the rapper and songwriter, got a front-row view from the sideline as Williams made the Irish (8-4) look silly.
He threw darts on a string, miraculously escaped sacks and accounted for four touchdowns. Even the incompletions were beautiful, like the one with seven minutes left when he escaped three more would-be sacks and, on the run, fired a missile 30 yards downfield that bounded off his receiver’s hands. Remember that Williams while in high school threw passes so hard at his high school practices that it broke his coach’s wedding ring.
The Coliseum held its collective breath each time Williams shifted out of the pocket. He darted left, zipped right, plunged forward, stopped in his tracks, spun away. It was a stunning showing from a kid who says he sometimes has to remind himself of his own athleticism.
He’s fast, shifty and has an innate ability to feel pressure. What separates him from other scramblers in the college game is that, through all the tackle-dodging, his eyes are peeled downfield, where he often finds wide open receivers.
He credits the scrambling to his own father, Carl, who stood outside the USC locker room all smiles on Saturday night.
“My dad always talks about ‘Take off! Take off!’” Williams says.
Take off and run? Check. Take off and fire a 40-yard completion? Check. Take off and win the Heisman? What…
Well, we’re getting there. At the request of his teammates, Williams struck that pose on a week in which USC began its Heisman campaign. The school released a video earlier this week, and on the jumbotron during the game, the stadium DJ led the crowd in Heisman chants.
Afterwards, Williams moved through a mob of TV cameras as he blew kisses to the crowd and rang the victory bell, clutching the game ball under his arm. This one, he will not forget.
This felt like a crowning Heisman moment in what was a rocking Coliseum. The atmosphere was electric. They roared with Williams, hanging on his every throw and every scramble.
The environment reminded Riley of his days watching the Trojans as a child. Tim Tessalone, the school’s longtime former sports information director who retired last year, says it was the best atmosphere for a game since the Pete Carroll Era.
“It felt like the Lakers Showtime Era back then,” he says. “Lincoln is getting that vibe back.”
They love winners here, especially those that remind them of their starry eyed celebrities. Williams is that star, his NFL stock and his NIL endorsements skyrocketing. He’s the face of a major water bottling brand and was one of the first college players to appear on a national commercial.
On the season, he’s got 34 touchdowns to three interceptions, has completed more than 65 percent of his passes and averages more than nine yards per completion. On Saturday, he was accurate (18 of 22 for 81%), efficient (185.4 QB rating) and dynamic (he averaged 42 yards on two punts!) enough to draw praise even from the opponent.
“He’s got my Heisman vote,” said one Notre Dame official on hand.
Strike the pose, Caleb. Strike the pose.
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