Caleb Williams ran more times than he had in either game before, and the development prompted a curious question during Troy’s postgame news conference.
Was using his legs a point of emphasis as USC prepared for the game?
“Definitely, it wasn’t a point of emphasis,” Williams said, flashing a smile as he looked over at coach Lincoln Riley.
He ran on Saturday night because he had to.
Williams’ season-high 12 rushing attempts in the 45-17 win over Fresno State included three sacks. Some of the others were on plays where the quarterback was chased out of the pocket.
“I tried not to run,” Williams said, “but that’s my ability.”
As much attention as Williams has drawn as the poster boy for the Transfer Troy, he remains something of a mystery, with his Heisman-worthy stats stacked up against his entirely overmatched opponents.
Great performances against Rice and Stanford don’t guarantee success against Utah or Notre Dame, which the game against Fresno State illustrated.
The Bulldogs inflicted as much damage on the 19-year-old Williams as he suffered here – just a scrap of contention nonetheless.
“We’ve said that all week with this team: We’re going to test, and we’re going to face some situations with this team that we haven’t yet as a team,” Riley said.
Williams had two saves during USC’s final possession of the first half. He was also fired during the previous drive.
The Trojans didn’t score on either possession and went into the break with the visiting Bulldogs still within striking distance at 21-10.
“Obviously, it was hot because we didn’t score,” Malcolm Epps said of Williams.
Williams responded strongly.
Behind Williams, the Trojans scored 21 points during their first three drives of the second half, putting the game out of the Bulldogs’ limited reach.
“His head is always up,” Epps said. “Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter [whether it’s] practicing, he messes up a play, he’s always keep going, keep going, keep going, next play. “
While Williams completed 16 of 26 passes in the first half, Williams was 9 of 11 in the second half. He finished with 284 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown.
“I thought we had to make some adjustments there after the second quarter, and I thought the adjustments were well received,” Riley said. “He went out and executed them well. He is learning how to win and thrive in different ways. That’s what quarterbacks do when they get older and more experienced. He’s seeing it well and has a good understanding of what we’re doing.”
Williams set up the first of USC’s three second-half touchdowns with an 18-yard pass to Jordan Addison.
Williams set up the next one as well, this time with a 32-yard pass over the shoulder of fellow Oklahoma transfer Mario Williams.
USC scored its final possession on a pass from Williams, a 10-yard completion to a wide open Epps.
“We went to halftime, we collected ourselves,” Williams said. “We wanted to play a complete game. That’s all for us this week.
“Besides, the hunters were to be there, not the hunted. That was our mindset. So, we came out fighting, we came out shooting and we had a pretty good third quarter.”
In three games, Williams has thrown for eight touchdowns and run for two more. He hasn’t turned the ball over yet.
USC scored touchdowns on each of its first three drives against Fresno State. But the Bulldogs neutralized the Trojans’ deep threats, especially Addison, who was Williams’ target of choice early in the game.
Addison will almost certainly double team at some point. What then?
The depth of the offensive line is also a concern. When the left field goal left Bobby Haskins forced to visit the injury tent in the second quarter, Williams was tackled on the next play.
The team’s main left tackle, Courtland Ford, was injured a week earlier.
Williams wasn’t worried.
“It was little mistakes,” he said. “Very small mistakes. Those little mistakes lead to stopping drives, getting a back pressure, having a sack when I should have fouled the ball or throwing it out of bounds and missing a field goal. It’s just little mistakes.”
Addison could very well be the No. 1 receiver. 1 of the nation. Running backs Travis Dye and Austin Jones rushed for more than 100 yards on Saturday while averaging more than nine yards per carry.
But this is Williams’ offense. This is the Williams team.
And it’s where the Trojans will ultimately decide if the kinds of adjustments he made against Fresno State could be made against the likes of Utah or Notre Dame.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.