Caleb Williams shines, leading USC to win over Arizona State

Questions crowded USC’s star quarterback like flaming defenders and lingered all week after his worst performance yet as a Trojan: What exactly happened to Caleb Williams at Corvallis? And how might he react when faced with adversity for the first time?

The answers would speak volumes about where sixth-ranked USC could end up in the coming months. But his coaches and teammates had dodged such hints and shook their heads at the very notion that Williams might falter. But through Saturday night, those lingering concerns about the Trojans’ narrow win at Oregon State went unanswered by Williams, until the second quarterback took it upon himself to shake them off.

Williams was asked again to escape in a 42-25 win over Arizona State on Saturday. This time, however, he turned the whole squad on their backs, bringing with them an inconsistent defense from the Trojans, a dubious offensive line and calm groundplay.

Williams spent most of Saturday night on the run, stopping and launching, diving and shooting past one defender after another. He tossed a blazing sun devil over his shoulder and slipped past the outstretched arms of countless others. He threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns while adding 44 yards and one touchdown with his legs, largely because he had no choice but to tie.

The win has silenced any concerns about Williams while raising other questions about USC (5-0, 3-0 Pac-12).

USC’s defense again left a lot to be desired in a first half that saw Arizona State move the ball up and down at will. It bogged down after halftime, allowing just a single touchdown drive and 113 yards before the game was secured with a Calen Bullock interception.

USC wide receiver Mario Williams runs Saturday in the first quarter after a catch against the Arizona State defense.

USC wide receiver Mario Williams runs Saturday in the first quarter after a catch against the Arizona State defense.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

But after a strong performance that kept USC afloat against Oregon State, questions about his defense seem to be going nowhere — especially with two of the Pac-12’s more capable offenses on tap over the next two weeks.

A duel with Arizona State seemed as ideal an opportunity as any in the Pac-12, since his coach had already been fired and his season had already slipped into indifference.

Disaster almost struck on USC’s first drive when a third-down snap slipped through Williams’ hands, forcing the quarterback to flee the pocket in the chaos of a broken game. But Williams dodged a tackle, then another before striving for a lucky first down.

It was a fitting start as Williams found himself constantly in compromising positions that he had to escape from. He mostly managed to break free anyway, leading USC to three touchdowns on his first three possessions.

It was on that first drive that Williams completed his next five passes after his near-fumble as USC’s offense drove the field relatively lightly, capping it with a quarterback one-yard rushing score.

USC wide receiver Jordan Addison signals a first down after making a catch on Arizona State's Timarcus Davis.

USC wide receiver Jordan Addison signals a first down after scoring a catch against Arizona State cornerback Timarcus Davis in the third quarter Saturday.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

But Arizona State responded with an opening statement of their own, rolling over USC defenses when Emory Jones hit a wide-open Xazavian Halladay, who grazed downfield for a 29-yard touchdown. The easy result proved an ominous sign of what was to come for the USC defense.

Arizona State didn’t let Williams get away easily in the following drives. It increased the pressure and regularly disturbed its place in the bag. Still, the Trojans quarterback usually proved too slippery for the Sun Devils. On a third down, he flicked an attacking rusher over his shoulder before scooting past the first-down marker to safety. A few plays later, while escaping the pressure, he fired a ball at Mario Williams in the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown.

The pressure continued to mount as USC opened its next drive inside its own five-yard line. Still, Caleb Williams managed to stay upright amid the chaos before delivering a jump pass to Jordan Addison on the sideline. His escape started another shot on goal, this time for 10 plays and 94 yards, which ended with a Malcolm Epps touchdown.

But every time Williams spun out of trouble to lead the Trojans onto a touchdown drive, her defense offered her own troubling response. Like Caleb Williams, Jones slipped from more than a few arm tackles, one of which he broke in the second quarter and cut USC’s lead to four just before halftime. He finished with 243 yards and two points, one through the air.

Williams ended up being too much for Arizona State, even after handing the Trojans’ first turnover of the season to the Sun Devils when he was intercepted in the corner of the end zone.

At this point, however, the open questions had already been answered, at least well enough to leave Saturday with a fifth win in a row. Caleb Williams shines, leading USC to win over Arizona State

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