LOS ANGELES – They wasted Caleb Williams. Again.
For a few minutes, after the decision went down at the end of Saturday night’s 52-42 loss at Washington, perhaps the most famous football player in America was just a kid who lost a football game. He jumped into the stands, after the game, resting his hooded head on his mother Dayna Price’s shoulder, shoulders shaking as he covered his face with a paper sign to protect the TV cameras that captured and zoomed in on the heartbreak. He fell asleep behind the post-game machine, sitting on the floor with his back to the wall out of sight before finally standing, trying to lean into the microphone when asked about his emotional state.
“I want to go home and cuddle with my dog,” Williams said, “and watch some sports.”
There was no life in the room, any hint of adrenaline, reality is cold and unforgiving. Williams is one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of collegiate football: and he may end his two years at USC without a national championship, without a College Football Playoff appearance, without a Pac-12 title. He turned another production game into a fiery shoot with Michael Penix Jr. For Washington, the line is about as good as you could ask for in an important conference game: 27-of-35, 312 passing yards, four total touchdowns.
It wasn’t enough. Because superhuman is never enough, not lifting this deeply flawed system and all the fighting and hunger passed the defensive failure that once again blew the Huskies to pieces. When Williams crumpled in the fourth quarter on a sack on third down, on third down and Washington’s matchup attempt failed, the night was already over, because any matchup and reliance on the USC defense to get a stop was cut to pieces. Washington entered Saturday ranked 117th out of 130 FBS teams in rushing yards per game at 102; running back Dillon Johnson somehow ran for 256, an elusive number, a kid who never ran for more than 100 in his career.
“I mean, obviously it wasn’t fair,” head coach Lincoln Riley said of USC’s defense. “I mean, not by any stretch of the imagination.”
Everyone with half a brain, in a game featuring two gaping defenses and two relentless offenses, is expecting a mind-boggling point total between the Trojans and the Huskies. But you wouldn’t expect it speed. The realization set in quickly, with a circus act of 601 yards in the first half and nine scores, that the ol’ whoever-gets-the-stops the winning expression will not work. No, this game would depend anyone who interrupts-keep.
The two signal-callers went three minutes or less driving back and forth throughout the first half, Williams looking as sharp and cool as he has been in weeks, Penix Jr. riding a bicycle in the hot weather to spread the word. -open the holes in the second USC idle.
On 3rd-and-1 on USC’s first drive, Williams beat a defender at the edge, then 360-degreed a Washington defender out of his shoes; after a few drives, Penix Jr. produced one of the highlights of the season, throwing a dart while out of bounds that somehow went past USC’s defensive line into the waiting arms of Devin Culp.
Later in the second quarter, with a hit by Riley, Williams passed to Zachariah Branch, who took a few steps – stopped – and passed back to Williams, who snapped his fingers for a Tahj Washington touchdown in a game that looked like kids drawing in the mud with sticks in the backyard. Not to be outdone, Penix Jr. calmly carved up USC’s defense like an early Thanksgiving turkey, ending the drive with a laser TD pass to Ja’lynn Polk who made an early catch that almost looked lonely.
The first factor, however, came when Williams, who struggled at times to hold on to the ball, tried too long to extend the play late in the first half and was stripped – setting up Washington for a short touchdown that was felt. titanic, giving the Huskies a 35-28 lead and the ball back at halftime in a game when USC’s pressured defense proved untrustworthy to get one stop, let alone two.
But on the second straight play, linebacker Eric Gentry took advantage. After falling down the depth chart for most of the year, he had a breakout against Cal, and with his limited reach he delivered a third-quarter pass from Penix Jr. into the arms of diving Christian Roland-Wallace.
And Williams wasted little time running back, trying the QB’s keeper on 4th-and-1 only to think better of it, spin off the lineman and flip a 25-yarder to Brenden Rice in the end zone for almost His 1,547th. how-on-world magic act at night.
But all night, USC’s defense couldn’t get around the fly ball, in a game that felt like it was falling apart after a year of mounting pressure on coordinator Alex Grinch. There was no possible explanation for what had happened here, how much this Washington group had tripled its average drop rate, crater-like spaces and craters nowhere in the area. Johnson did not continue; he just ran in the open, time and time again.
“There wasn’t much to say,” linebacker Mason Cobb said, simply, when asked about the Grinch’s postgame message.
Here’s what can be said: this program, judging by simple results over two seasons, has continued to waste Williams.