Column: Can Caleb Williams adapt and keep masking USC’s flaws?

Caleb Williams ran more often than in his previous two games, prompting an odd question during the Trojans’ post-game press conference.

Was using his legs a focus as USC prepared for the game?

“Certainly it wasn’t a focus,” Williams said, flashing a smile as he glanced over at Coach Lincoln Riley.

He ran on Saturday night because he had to.

Williams’ season-best 12 rushing attempts in the 45-17 win over Fresno State included three sacks. Some of the others have been in games where the quarterback got pocketed.

“I tried not to run,” Williams said, “but that’s a skill I have.”

As much attention as Williams has garnered as the poster child of Transferportal Trojans, he still remains a mystery, his Heisman-worthy stats compiled against completely overwhelmed opponents.

Spectacular performances against Rice and Stanford don’t guarantee success against Utah or Notre Dame, which made the game against Fresno State instructive.

The Bulldogs faced 19-year-old Williams with as much adversity as he’s faced here—just a little adversity, but adversity nonetheless.

“We’ve been saying that all week with this team: we’re going to be tested and we’re going to face some situations with this team that we haven’t been in as a team,” Riley said.

Williams was sacked twice during USC’s final first-half possession. He was also released during the drive in front of it.

The Trojans failed to score in any possession and went into the break 21-10 with the visiting Bulldogs still within striking distance.

“Of course he was hot because we didn’t score,” tight end Malcolm Epps said of Williams.

Williams replied emphatically.




Behind Williams, the Trojans scored 21 points during their first three drives in the second half, placing the game outside of the Bulldogs’ limited range.

“His head is always up,” Epps said. “No matter what it is, no matter what [whether it’s] In training he messes up a game, it’s always go on, go on, go on, next game. “

Williams completed 16 of 26 passes in an uneven first half and was 9 of 11 in the second half, finishing with 284 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown.

“I thought we needed to make some adjustments there after the second quarter, and I felt the adjustments were well received,” Riley said. “He went out and executed them well. He learns to win and progress in different ways. That’s what quarterbacks do as they get older and more experienced. He sees it well and has a good understanding of what we are doing.”

USC quarterback Caleb Williams scores a touchdown against Fresno State.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams scores for a touchdown against Fresno State in the first quarter Saturday at the Coliseum.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Williams set up the first of USC’s three second-half touchdowns with an 18-yard pass to Jordan Addison.

Williams also set up the next one, this time with a 32-yard pass to the back shoulder of fellow Oklahoma transfer Mario Williams.

USC scored its final touchdown on a Williams pass, a 10-yard completion to a wide-open Epps.

“We went into halftime, we rallied,” Williams said. “We wanted to play a full game. That was our whole thing this week.

“Furthermore, it should be the hunters, not the hunted. That was our mentality. So we came out fighting, 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 still hasn’t turned the ball over.

USC scored touchdowns on each of their first three drives against Fresno State. But the Bulldogs neutralized deep threats from the Trojans, particularly Addison, who was Williams’ preferred target early in the game.

Addison is bound to be double cast at some point. So what?

Depth on the offensive line is also an issue. When left tackle Bobby Haskins was forced to visit the injury tent in the second quarter, Williams was fired the next game.

The team’s primary left tackle, Courtland Ford, had been injured a week earlier.

Williams didn’t sound concerned.

“It was a small mistake,” he said. “Very small mistakes. These little mistakes cause me to falter on drives, get pushbacks, have a sack where I should have soiled the ball, or throw it wide and make a field goal. Just very small mistakes.”

Addison could very well be the nation’s No. 1 receiver. Running backs Travis Dye and Austin Jones each ran for more than 100 yards Saturday while averaging more than nine yards per carry.

But that’s William’s fault. This is Williams team.

And where the Trojans end up will ultimately depend on whether the kind of adjustments he made against Fresno State could be made against Utah or Notre Dame. Column: Can Caleb Williams adapt and keep masking USC’s flaws?

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