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    What has happened to Caleb Williams and USC’s vaunted offense?
    • October 22, 2023

    There were no tears, this time.

    Another critical game against Utah ended in defeat, another USC team outcoached and outlasted, and this time Caleb Williams seemed all but drained of emotion. Remaining on the bench, postgame, as Utah stormed the field, the rest of his teammates slowly making their way to the tunnel, their quarterback sighing and staring into a void of nothing in particular. Giving, on the FOX broadcast, a resigned handshake to center and fellow captain Justin Dedich.

    Reality had set in, cruel and unforgiving. Bleak. This was a man who has been universally renowned as a leader since the day Williams stepped foot on Gonzaga College High’s campus, since calming the nerves of running back Jaden Knowles in their first extended stretch of playing time at Oklahoma. Who had spoken to his USC teammates, before this pivotal season, about the importance and opportunity of creating a legacy so grand their name could walk into rooms they were never present within.

    “You can’t go win a championship by yourself … it’s a whole 110 players that’s immortal with you,” Williams said in August.

    But immortality, in the span of a drubbing in South Bend and a heartbreaking 34-32 loss to Utah at the Coliseum, has slipped away. No team in this current era of the College Football Playoff has ever made the tournament with two losses. USC is out of contention for a national championship; a road to a Pac-12 championship doesn’t look much easier, with back-to-back games against Washington and Oregon coming up.

    And the rumor mill, slowly building steam across the past couple weeks, will now be chugging steadily across the final few weeks of USC’s season. Emmanuel Acho suggested in a now-viral tweet that Williams should consider sitting out the rest of the season to preserve his health for the league, massively amplifying a take that’d been whispered in corners of social media. Noise around Williams’ potential to pass up the NFL for a third season of college has built, ever since father Carl suggested in an early-September GQ profile that his son could return to USC if they didn’t feel he’d be landing in a good situation with a pro team.

    “In a perfect world, yeah, would every single player, staff member, everybody in your program be so hyper-focused that they don’t hear noise on the outside or outside expectations or all of that?” coach Lincoln Riley said postgame, Williams absent from the postgame presser. “But that’s probably not reality, either.”

    Noise has built, correspondingly, as Williams has noticeably seemed just off the past couple weeks.

    On Saturday, with 8 yards to strike paydirt and down eight with less than four minutes to go, Williams took a snap out of the shotgun, faked a handoff as pressure bore down, and reared up to fire to Kyron Hudson in the corner of the end zone.

    The ball slipped out of his hands.

    It was the confounding climax of arguably the worst stretch of Williams’ collegiate life as a passer: largely slowed against Arizona, seeming to force a couple throws-turned-picks against Notre Dame and going without a touchdown pass Saturday for the first time in his USC career. Across formations with increased presence in the secondary – Utah giving seven different defensive backs over 30 snaps Saturday — standard drop-backs haven’t generated much over the past couple weeks, and Williams has missed on a number of throws after a near-flawless start.

    Against Utah, Williams threw for just 115 yards on 22 attempts on plays without a run-pass option, according to Pro Football Focus; almost the same as his metrics the previous week, throwing for 127 on 23 attempts on drop-backs. Outside of a nifty Zachariah Branch end-around touchdown in the first quarter, USC’s offense looked unimaginative on Saturday when compared to Utah’s deployment of breakout two-way star Sione Vaki.

    “I’ve had, I think, an OK track record in calling plays,” Riley said postgame. “Confident in my ability and our ability to do that, but we’ve got to be better for each other.”

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    Riley insisted on Tuesday the tape from Notre Dame showed wide-open receivers running amok, but it’s clear USC is having trouble utilizing its skill players against strong defensive units — as evidenced by Riley giving some key third-quarter playing time to long-dormant freshmen Duce Robinson and Makai Lemon.

    Brenden Rice and Tahj Washington, who had 112 yards on Saturday, have been the only consistent big-play threats in the Trojans’ wide-receiver room; Arizona transfer Dorian Singer continues to be largely an afterthought, Branch had just two touches Saturday, and running back MarShawn Lloyd was churning before a costly third-quarter fumble.

    “To play really good and be successful, you’ve gotta be really sharp,” Riley said postgame. “And at times, we were really sharp and at times we were not. So obviously gotta play better there.”

    ​ Orange County Register