Caleb Williams and the USC offense just could not be stopped.
Williams turned in an epic performance on Saturday night, outdueling Dorian Thompson-Robinson in a high-flying 48-45 victory over UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
Williams, one of the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy, threw for 470 yards and two touchdowns while adding 32 yards and a score on the ground in the win. Williams was the best player on the field and his starring effort paved the way for a berth in the Pac-12 championship game for the Trojans.
USC, now 10-1 in just its first season under Lincoln Riley, is also alive and well for the College Football Playoff.
And against all odds, it took a defensive stop to seal the victory.
USC had a 48-38 lead with 9:10 to go, but that lead quickly shrunk to 48-45 with 6:38 remaining. From there, it looked like the USC offense would be able to add to the lead yet again while eating up much of the remaining clock.
Instead, USC’s offense stalled near midfield and punted for the first time all night, giving Thompson-Robinson and the Bruins another shot with 2:21 to play.
Thompson-Robinson, a fifth-year senior, quickly picked up a first down and had the Bruins on the move. That’s when the much-maligned USC defense made a play. Korey Foreman, a defensive end, dropped into coverage and intercepted Thompson-Robinson at midfield.
Thompson-Robinson put on an incredibly gutsy performance with 309 passing yards, 75 rushing yards and six total touchdowns, but that turnover allowed the Trojans to run out the clock and seal the victory. It was the third interception of the game and the fourth turnover overall for Thompson-Robinson, who also lost a fumble.
Ultimately, that third and final interception doomed UCLA’s Pac-12 title hopes and allowed the Trojans to move one step closer to a berth in the four-team playoff.
USC fell behind 14-0, battled all the way back
Early on, things did not look good for USC.
The Trojans’ first three drives ended with a turnover on downs, a missed field goal and an interception thrown by Williams. Those miscues allowed UCLA to jump out to a 14-0 lead after one quarter.
In the second quarter, though, Williams and the Trojans’ offense got going and by halftime, UCLA’s lead was only 21-20.
In the second half, USC started to take control. Williams made play after play, consistently fitting balls in tight windows on the move. His 35-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Addison midway through the third gave USC its first lead, 27-24. And then a Thompson-Robinson fumble allowed USC to quickly add another score, making it 34-24 with 6:36 remaining in the third.
From there, a barrage of points came from both sides with each defense looking incapable of getting a stop.
But in the end, USC’s defense would indeed get a stop via a formula it has used all season — forcing turnovers. USC entered Saturday’s game with the top-ranked turnover margin in college football with 20 turnovers gained and just three lost.
The Trojans gave up 507 yards of offense but were plus-three in turnovers, putting them at a stunning plus-20 for the season.
What does this mean for USC?
With the win, USC has officially clinched a spot in the Pac-12 title game. And with just one loss on the year, the Trojans remain alive in the CFP race.
USC was No. 7 in the most-recent rankings, but will surely move up following No. 5 Tennessee’s surprising loss to South Carolina.
And with a game against No. 18 Notre Dame and the Pac-12 title game on the horizon, USC can earn a spot in the field if it wins those two games.
The loser of next week’s No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Michigan game could end up falling behind USC. There’s also No. 6 LSU’s matchup with No. 1 Georgia in the SEC title game.
Those are both opportunities for USC to move up as long as the wins keep coming.