LOS ANGELES — After Caleb Williams’ latest magic act, a dazzling display of back-pedaling improvisation that turned a certain sack into a big passing play, USC’s awestruck crowd showed its appreciation for the Trojans’ quarterback.
“Heisman! Heisman! Heisman!” a pocket of fans chanted.
Williams padded his lead in the race for college football’s most coveted individual award 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 conduct the marching band or sing the national anthem as the Trojans improved to 11-1 and strengthened 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 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 bob, weave and slip away.
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.
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. The Trojans lined up as if they were going to go for it on fourth-and-8 in the second quarter, but Williams instead unleashed a 58-yard pooch punt, USC’s longest punt of the season so far. Williams punted again in a similar situation midway through the fourth quarter and pinned Notre Dame back at its own 10-yard line.
Riley also got 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 Williams drew an offensive pass interference penalty trying to break up a potential interception in the end zone.
Williams’ flurry of Heisman-worthy moments kept USC in strong position to make the College Football Playoff. The Trojans would finish the season with a conference championship and back-to-back marquee wins if they could follow up victories over UCLA and Notre Dame with a Pac-12 title game victory.
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 their 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. It can only bolster USC’s case that its lone blemish this season came by a single point, a 43-42 mid-October loss 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. Calen Bullock stepped in front of a Drew Pyne pass and snared his fifth interception, sending a near-sellout Coliseum crowd into a frenzy.
From there, Williams added one more Heisman moment. On fourth-and-2, he faked a handoff and kept the ball himself for a 16-yard touchdown run. Receivers Tahj Washington and Jordan Addison punctuated the moment by approaching Williams and pantomiming placing a crown on his head.
Indeed, little doubt remains who college football’s top individual player is. After another breathtaking night, it appears to be time to crown Caleb Williams.