Caleb Williams’ Heisman moment — plus a defensive stop! — sends USC to Pac-12 title game

PASADENA, Calif. — Amid the frenzy, Caleb Williams calmly climbed, rung by rung. Soon enough, it was the USC quarterback standing tall with the crowd in front of him as it roared in excitement.

These are the types of moments he came to USC for. At this point in time, he was leading the Trojan marching band. But on the field, Williams stood tall, his performance head and shoulders above all others Saturday night. He captivated the crowd with a 503-yard, three-touchdown masterpiece.

In the seventh-ranked Trojans’ exhilarating 48-45 victory over their 16th-ranked crosstown rival, UCLA, Williams displayed why he should be at the forefront of the Heisman conversation.

Fewer players nationally are asked to do more for their team than Williams, the former five-star prospect and one-time Oklahoma quarterback. Whether it’s playing with a less-than-stellar defense that requires him to score 45 points a game or with an offense that has missed key pieces due to injury or behind a makeshift offensive line, Williams always finds a way to deliver.

The Trojans don’t really have a roster that should be in contention for a College Football Playoff spot. As one Pac-12 assistant coach told The Athletic recently: “If you take No. 13  off the field, they’d probably be a 6-4 kind of team, not 9-1 (now 10-1) and in the hunt.”

But they do have Williams, and they are in the hunt for a Playoff berth. And, thanks to Saturday’s win, they will be in the Pac-12 title game in Las Vegas.

This was another step forward for a USC program that has returned to national prominence just one year after winning four games. And it seems as though Williams surely took another step toward New York and an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

So let’s sort through Williams’ night and the Trojans’ thrilling come-from-behind win.

1. What more could be said about Williams? He completed 32-of-43 pass attempts for 470 yards and two touchdowns and calmly bounced back from an early interception that helped put the Trojans in a 14-0 hole. He rushed for 33 yards and two scores as well.

USC basically has had no margin for error in the Pac-12 or College Football Playoff race ever since it lost to Utah a month ago. Dating back to that Saturday night in Salt Lake City, Williams has accounted for 23 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

He’s simply playing incredible football. The escapes. The throws on the run. The poise. It’s hard to overstate how impressive Williams has been. One of the biggest hindrances to his Heisman campaign has been exposure and visibility. Williams has been playing at 7 p.m. (PT) most weeks, and few have stayed up late to see him. Some of his biggest moments have been stuck on a network nobody can watch.

Saturday night was a prime time showcase in a game USC had to win against its rival, on the road with CFP and conference title stakes hanging in the balance. And he shined just like he has in almost every other game this season.

“Having coached some guys like that in the past,” coach Lincoln Riley said when asked about Williams’ potential Heisman moment, “one of the things that guys who win individual awards, whether it’s a Heisman or a Biletnikoff or a Mackey or whatever it is, they never focus on that. They never think about that. You just try to win each week for your team. Those are the guys that find a way to do it.

“He’s been one of the best players in the country this year. He’s played really well. All those things, it’s got to stay about the ball. That’s the most important thing. I know that’s the most important thing to him and all of us. Maybe those things come to fruition and that’s great, but those are kind of byproducts. It’s not why we’re here. I can speak for him and say that’s not why he’s here.”

2. When the Heisman is presented every December, you tend to hear the winner describe it as a team award. It’s fitting that Williams’ Heisman chances are still alive thanks to a defensive play.

During a USC practice earlier this week, rush end Korey Foreman dropped into coverage and picked off a pass. After the play, safety Bryson Shaw, a transfer from Ohio State, approached him with a message: “Let’s get it in the game now,” Shaw recalled. “Get it in the game now.”

Before UCLA faced a third-and-5 with 1:32 remaining, Foreman paced the sideline. He knew he wasn’t supposed to look at the clock, but he took a glance and knew a play had to be made. The Trojans were holding onto a three-point lead as the Bruins, who won this game 62-33 last year, were trying to march down the field for the winning score.

“Nothing could stop me but me at this moment,” the former five-star prospect told himself. He entered the game and stood up at his normal rush end spot. As the ball was snapped, he dropped into coverage intent on monitoring whatever route UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet was running.

He knew if he could move on from the back, his next responsibility was to spy the quarterback. Corner Mekhi Blackmon, who had a critical interception near the end of the first half, had pretty good position on Charbonnet, so quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson moved off that target and looked back toward the middle of the field in the direction of slot receiver Kaz Allen.

Foreman recognized this and peeled back into the middle of the field and directly into the passing lane, where he picked off Thompson-Robinson to seal the win for the Trojans.

“I forgot about (the practice interception), but Korey didn’t forget about it,” Shaw said. “Korey didn’t forget about it. He came up to me in the locker room and said, ‘I told you. I told you.’”

3. It’s been and up-and-down two years for Foreman at USC. He signed with the Trojans with great expectations as the No. 1 player in the country for the majority of the 2021 recruiting cycle.

Once he signed, the athletic department put a graphic of Foreman on a billboard near the Galen Center touting his arrival. After years of losing some of Southern California’s best players to Oregon, Ohio State or SEC schools, USC finally landed a local player who was expected to be a difference-maker for the defense.

But Foreman finished an underwhelming freshman season with just 2.5 sacks and only 11 tackles.

The arrival of Riley signaled a fresh start. But Foreman was banged up during spring practice and missed almost half of those workouts. He didn’t earn a starting job during training camp, and an injury forced him to miss a few weeks.

When starting rush end Romello Height suffered a season-ending injury against Stanford in Week 2, USC’s defensive staff moved Solomon Byrd, a defensive lineman, to that spot, and he ended up starting over Foreman. Weeks later, the Trojans moved Nick Figueroa, another defensive lineman, to rush end, and he also started ahead of Foreman.

Foreman didn’t play a single defensive snap against Oregon State. This season has been far from smooth.

But last week, Foreman showed some signs of life with an energetic performance against Colorado.

And then, on Saturday, he made by far the biggest play of his career. That interception required some five-star athleticism.

“You just never know when it’s going to be your moment. He was ready,” Riley said. “He’s worked hard behind the scenes and is a great example of, ‘Don’t worry about any outside expectations or what people think.’ It doesn’t matter. Just keep working and improving.”

4. It was fitting that Foreman shared the podium with receiver Kyle Ford for his postgame interview. Ford finished with three catches for 73 yards and a touchdown against UCLA.

With USC trailing 21-10 in the second quarter, Ford made a tough, contested grab on an amazing Williams throw, then ran for a 49-yard gain to set up a much-needed Trojans touchdown.

That helped spark a 24-3 run that put USC ahead 34-24 midway through the third quarter. The Trojans led 34-31 early in the fourth when Williams looked toward Ford again. This time in the end zone.

Ford rewarded Williams’ faith by hauling in yet another difficult, contested catch to give USC a 10-point lead.

Like Foreman, Ford was a five-star prospect at one point during the recruiting process. The Class of 2019 signee suffered an ACL tear as a high school senior that cut his final season short.

He spent the next year rehabbing and was set to return for the following season. But that summer, he tore his ACL again and missed the shortened 2020 campaign.

He didn’t get consistent playing time last year, and his role moving forward was unclear after the Trojans brought in three transfers at the receiver position this offseason. Ford didn’t play much during the first seven games of the season, but he’s caught fire the past four weeks.

Against Arizona, he caught six passes for 114 yards and a score. He’s caught three passes for 73 yards in each of the past two weeks and made some critical catches in USC’s time of need.

Like Foreman, Ford has been patient. And they’ve both stepped up when called upon.

“Honestly, if you would have told me at the end of last season I would be here now with this group of guys and being able to play for a championship, I would have called you a dead liar,” Ford said. “Just being completely honest. I’m just so thankful for everyone on this team.”

5. What was so impressive about USC’s victory was just how many different players stepped up and provided plays when necessary.

Receiver Tahj Washington has been an unsung hero for the Trojans all season and made an incredible catch to prevent an interception.

Michael Jackson III came up with some critical receptions and finished with three catches for 42 yards. Linebacker Shane Lee has been maligned for his coverage but came through with a crucial interception late in the second quarter.

Ford and Foreman stepped up big. Darwin Barlow barely played in the first nine games of the season before playing mop-up duty in the fourth quarter against Colorado last week. He didn’t play much Saturday, but there he was tearing off a 19-yard run in the fourth quarter and then following it up with a 6-yard TD to put USC ahead 48-38.

Austin Jones went from starting the season as 1B to Travis Dye’s 1A in the running back room before seeing his carries dwindle significantly. On Saturday, Jones played extremely well in place of Dye, who suffered a season-ending injury last week. He rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries and caught four passes for 57 yards.

All these players were ready when it mattered.

“I think it’s a testament to how hard everybody works,” Ford said. “Sometimes you don’t always see that. Not everyone gets to see it but we see it. We know. Darwin gets in the game. It’s no surprise to anyone. Everyone just being able to step up and be ready when they go into those situations is honestly what I’m really proud of with this team as well.”

6. USC also got big performances from its stars as well. Receiver Jordan Addison was back in action after playing briefly against Colorado last week. He finished with 11 catches for 178 yards, and the Bruins had no answer for him.

Defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu finished with six tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He was a big factor in USC limiting Charbonnet, who had torched nearly every defense he’s faced this season, to just 95 yards rushing. That should be considered a major win for the USC defense.

7. Tuipulotu is one of several players who was on the team for last season’s embarrassing 62-33 loss to UCLA.

Thompson-Robinson talked a lot during the week about wanting to score more than the 62 points the Bruins had against USC last season. Trojans players didn’t respond throughout the week, but it was clear after the game that the loss — and Thompson-Robinson’s words — lingered with USC.

“I know everybody talks about this is the Lincoln Riley era, but for a lot of the guys on the team, this is a revenge tour,” Tuipulotu said. “We get our get-backs for a lot of the teams that disrespected us last year. Excited to be on this team and go to the (championship game).”

Added center Brett Neilon: “We heard all their stuff. You could tell those teddy bears we beat ’em so they can say whatever they want, do whatever they want, but we run L.A. So I’m happy.”

8. For a few moments early in the first half, it looked as though UCLA was going to run away with the game. The Bruins’ leads of 14-0 and 21-10 were the biggest deficits the Trojans have faced this season.

Riley is still trying to instill a winning culture at USC. At different times, he’s referenced that it’s hard to do that until the team gets in some uncomfortable moments. So it was going to be interesting to see how the Trojans dealt with some early adversity.

They delivered an emphatic punch back.

“Being down 14-0 … and not even flinching and not even thinking about flinching,” Riley said when asked for a sign of this team’s growth. “I actually told the guys last night, I was referencing to one (rivalry game) we were in last year at the other place. All of a sudden we were down 28-7 at half. I told the guys we are capable of being down 28-7 at the end of the first quarter. We can make a lot of great plays but we can make some mistakes too. … The team we’re playing is a good team. You can’t write the script first. You’ve just got to be ready to respond and respond with discipline.”

The script didn’t start off like everyone expected Saturday night, but the movie won’t be one any USC fan forgets for a long time.

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)