USC makes playoff statement edging UCLA as Caleb Williams’ career night suggests best yet to come

On a Saturday filled with career bests, Caleb Williams might have achieved his. Maybe not his entire career, of course, but at least his career to date. The way things are going, who knows what’s ahead for the USC quarterback and the Trojans?

The Rose Bowl might as well have been a launching pad for a lot of things Saturday night. With Williams chucking it, running it, and emotionally leading it, USC can suddenly see a College Football Playoff berth from here. Some believe they even control their own destiny when it comes to the Football Four in this dizzying turnaround year that just won’t quit.

But it’s the way the Trojans are doing it. They needed every one of Williams’ career-best 470 yards passing (503 total yards) — the most by any player in rivalry history — to defeat UCLA, 48-45.. Those numbers will live in the USC annals for years, maybe decades.

It’s more about what it means in the present. The Pac-12 is back, at least a factor this late in the season. The last Pac-12 playoff entry was six years ago. If USC seals the deal, it would get in two years before it migrates to the Big Ten. At this point, who cares about affiliations?

For now, the Trojans giddily clinched a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game. They can’t afford to look past Notre Dame next Saturday. But on that journey, Williams was just a little bit better in a shootout with his UCLA counterpart Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

That’s the same DTR who said he wanted to score 60 against the Trojans. The same DTR who threw for at least four scores for the fifth time in his career. Instead, the fifth-year senior helped decide the game by throwing three crippling interceptions, the last one with 1:26 remaining. Sophomore defensive lineman Korey Foreman contributed the biggest play of his young career with the pick.

“I’ll be honest: They had a lot to say this week. We blocked it out,” Williams said. “They had a lot to say tonight. We blocked it out.”

Mostly, his teammates blocked enough. The 93 combined points were the second-most in the series behind only the 95 scored last year in UCLA’s rout of USC at the end of the Trojans’ dreary 4-8 season.

That preceded the hiring of Lincoln Riley, who brought in 20 transfers and 40 new players in a two-month span.

That brings us here as we witness not only one of the best turnarounds in the country but one of the best of all time. USC is 10-1 for the first time since 2008. Backup running back Austin Jones contributed 120 yards rushing, his most in two years. Wide receiver Jordan Addison was close to a career-high, tying for the second-most receptions in a game (11 for 178 yards).

Both, of course, are transfers — Jones from Stanford and Addison from Pittsburgh.

The season is rushing to a conclusion, and we can’t get enough.

Did you see TCU run the ball on purpose with no timeouts — and time running out — so it could trot out its “fire drill” game-winning field goal unit at the gun against Baylor? Did you see Michigan doing much the same thing, needing a 35-yard field goal at The Big House version to beat Illinois as time expired?

A few hours later, South Carolina QB Spencer Rattler went out and had the game over his life The Gamecocks pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season, wiping out Tennessee, 63-38. Rattler came into the game with eight touchdown passes (nine interceptions) on the season; He left with 14 after throwing a career-high six scores against the Vols.

That helped open the door (if only a crack further) for USC, which can see a light shining from beyond it.

This is what Trojans do everywhere wanted but could any of them have expected it this fast? Williams, the Oklahoma transfer, pushed himself to near the front of the Heisman Trophy conversation leading USC back from an early 14-0 deficit.

After an early interception, he led the Trojans to scores on eight of the next nine drives before USC’s one and only punt of the night. Williams was nearly matched by DTR, who led three straight touchdown drives over the third and fourth quarters totaling 17 plays and 215 yards.

It’s hard to believe the game-winning score came with 9 minutes left as TCU transfer Darwin Barlow ran 9 yards to make it 48-38. It’s harder to believe this is it for the Trojans. USC is now arguably the best one-loss team in the country. That’s because there is only one other one-loss team in the country (Clemson). A third one-loss team is guaranteed Saturday when Ohio State hosts Michigan in a battle of Big Ten unbeatens.

You can see more clearly now what Saturday meant. The loser of The Game might open up a spot for the Trojans in the CFP.

Foreman iced the game with the biggest play of his career He has already traded a percentage of future pro earnings for a cash payout in one of the most unique deals of the NIL era. To date, his career had been a bit underwhelming coming to Troy as the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit.

You want to know what Saturday meant? Foreman is now a legend in this rivalry. You want to know what the change of scenery has meant? A year ago, Williams played the shakiest game of his young career in Bedlam. The Sooners did not score in the second half of that game; Oklahoma State won by four. Williams was only 6 of 18 in that second half.

On Saturday, he threw for a career high.

And the best may be yet to come.

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