LOS ANGELES – The advertisements for Caleb Williams’ Heisman Trophy candidacy began even before USC and Notre Dame took the field Saturday. On the huge video board at the west end of the Coliseum, the USC’s game ops crew put up the Heisman hype video celebrating Williams, and afterward the board flashed a QR code inviting fans to cast their own votes for the USC quarterback.
That? That was kid’s stuff. Williams did the heavy lifting once Saturday’s game began. And if part of the Heisman selection process seems to favor those who excel in high-profile moments, the coveted statue is his to lose.
One by one, other key candidates fell back this weekend. Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud didn’t play that well in his team’s home loss to Michigan. Michigan running back Blake Corum was unavailable against the Buckeyes. North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye was ordinary in an overtime loss to N.C.State Friday, a week after the Tar Heels were beaten by Georgia Tech.
TCU running back Max Duggan helped his cause with a 212-yard day in the Horned Frogs’ rout of Iowa State. Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett was as efficient as he needed to be in the No. 1 Bulldogs’ victory over Georgia Tech.
But Williams had the national stage, in prime time, on the full ABC network and not cable, at the center of one of the most famous of all college football rivalries. And as the evening proceeded, the Dec. 10 announcement at the New York Downtown Athletic Club seemed to be looking more and more like a mere formality.
Williams had put himself atop a lot of ballots a week before with his 470 passing yards the week before against UCLA. Barring a complete collapse in next week’s Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas, he sealed it Saturday night, accounting for 267 yards (232 passing) and four touchdowns (three with his legs, one with his arm) in the 38-27 victory that may have vaulted the Trojans into the College Football Playoff top four, at least for now.
Heisman ballots are due a week from Monday, so it’s always wise to allow for the unexpected. But this was as close as it gets to an infomercial, 3-1/2 hours of ABC prime time that might as well have been titled “He13man.”
Which is, of course, the slogan USC’s sports information staff came up with for Williams’ campaign. Proof that it stuck: The now obligatory shot of young men in the stands with their shirts off and letters painted on their torsos, which conveniently spelled out “He13man” for the ABC audience.
That’s one indicator that this is serious. The other, of course, is the Heisman pose, the leg up, arm out pose that Michigan’s Desmond Howard first mimicked the year he won it in 1991. Williams did it twice Saturday night. The first was after an okey-doke touchdown at the end of the first half, when he faked a handoff to Austin Jones, then pulled it back and glided to the end zone while the Irish were ganging up on Jones. The second was his touchdown at the very start of the fourth quarter when, with Notre Dame defenders bearing down on him, he spun away from them and trotted to the end zone, turning back to see if anyone were pursuing him.
“I honestly started because a bunch of my teammates were saying, ‘Do it,’ ” he said. “I normally don’t. I normally just kind of don’t do anything. So they told me to do it. They kept saying it so I just ended up doing it at the moment.”
Oh, those incorrigible teammates. Jordan Addison placed an invisible crown on his head after Williams’ third rushing touchdown, off another fake handoff with 2:35 left in the game (about the same time the game ops crew put up the QR code again.
Among other things, Williams kept toppling single-season school records as the evening proceeded. His 7-yard run on the game’s first series set the mark for rushing yards by a quarterback. His sleight-of-hand 5-yard scamper toward the end of the first half that prompted the first Heisman pose gave Williams the single-season record for touchdowns accounted for by a quarterback. And midway through the third quarter he’d established the single-season record for passing yards.
But it wasn’t as much about numbers as about moments, all of those times when Williams kept plays alive, twisting and turning and scrambling before running for first downs or finding open receivers on those fire drill plays.
There was the third-quarter play where he escaped a sack at midfield, 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and wound up sliding at the Notre Dame 20 for a first down. Or the mad scramble followed by a strike down the sideline to Mario Williams for a 12-yard gain, on third-and-20 … which was followed by a quick-kick punt of 58 yards.
That just happened to be USC’s longest punt of the season. Later on, he had a pooch punt on fourth and 15 from the Notre Dame 36, so we can say he averaged 42 yards a punt Saturday. Triple threat, anyone?
Then there was the 23-yard dart to Addison off of another twisting and turning scramble for a first down, four plays before his first Heisman pose. And the lob pass – seriously – to tight end Lake McRee on a fake end-around, for a 31-yard gain on the third play of the game.
“I’ve obviously seen him do it a lot, but I’m proud of the decisions that he’s making – other than one tonight,” coach Lincoln Riley said, drawing a quizzical look from Williams next to him at the news conference dais.
“Yeah, that one, when you got sacked, that (10-yard) loss,” the coach added, drawing laughs.
“It is impressive. I mean, the escapability, the ability to get out of tackles and also kind of combination of quickness. I think there’s just a trust there because, you know, a high percentage of time he makes the right play on it and has obviously made a lot of big plays in that scenario for us.”
He is the entire package – the numbers, the excitement, the memorable moments, and the leadership on a team that has restored the excellence to a program that had lost its way for a time.
Really, should there be any doubt about the identity of college football’s best player in 2022?