Column: Is USC star QB Caleb Williams ready for bigger tests?

Caleb Williams is the kind of player who can make an entire stadium go “ohhhh” multiple times per game.

By spinning out of a certain sack. With a jump pass to the long sideline. With throws on the run backwards into the end zone.

Then there was that most spectacular of five-yard runs near the end of the first half of USC’s 42-25 win over Arizona State on Saturday night, where he dodged a defender with a pump fake and a spin move he suddenly came up with Standing and sending another up tackle wide of him.

Williams is electric.

He is also only 19 years old.

If his four-touchdown performance against the Sun Devils showed his stunning skill, the week before offered evidence of his relative inexperience.

Now his midterms are coming up.

The next two weeks will be about where Williams stands, both as a quarterback and as a person.

His ability to read defenses and throw under pressure will be tested.

So will his maturity.

“He’s ready,” said coach Lincoln Riley.

USC coach Lincoln Riley Points will speak to quarterback Caleb Williams on the sidelines

USC coach Lincoln Riley speaks on the sidelines with quarterback Caleb Williams during Saturday’s Trojans game against Arizona State at the Coliseum.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Transfer Portal Trojans will take on two of the Pac-12’s best defenses in their next two games by hosting Washington State on Oct. 8 and visiting defending conference champion Utah a week later.

Washington State gave up 44 points in a loss to No. 13 Oregon two weeks ago, but has allowed an average of less than 12 points in its other four games.

Since the season opener to Florida was canceled, No. 12 Utah has dropped a total of 43 points in their last four games. Utah was a 42-16 winner over Oregon State, which gave USC a spook last week.

USC’s 17-14 victory in Corvallis was a kind of Rorschach test. Williams played his worst game statistically – completing just 16 of 36 passes – but orchestrated a comeback drive in the final minutes to salvage USC’s season.

Whether Williams unnecessarily complicated the game or saved the evening was in the eye of the beholder. What was undoubtedly a bad look for him was when he failed to show up at the post-match press conference. He was also a last-minute scratch from his scheduled midweek media session.

“I had a few things that came up during the week so I just had to skip them and move on,” Williams said. “Now I’m here.”

Riley added, “Turns out these guys have school, too.”

In the days before college athletes could be compensated for their names, likenesses, and likenesses, Williams’ amateur status and age would have given him a free pass.

Except Williams isn’t just a student athlete. He is an active partner in college football’s money-making business and enlists the help of Smith & Company, a strategic marketing and communications firm.

Williams can be seen in a television commercial for bottled water. He did a digital ad for premium headphones.

He had no problem speaking during spring training when he was making endorsement deals. He’s spoken out so much that earlier in the week Riley bragged about how USC “made him as available as any other player in the country, probably in our time here.”

So why the sudden shyness?

The problem wasn’t that the world wasn’t hearing about a teenager with a handful of college starts. Trouble was, whatever the actual reasons for his temporary silence, Williams appeared like he would go into hiding as soon as he encountered adversity. And, coincidentally or not, he emerged after running 348 yards and running another 44.

The question now is whether his youthful shoulders are ready to shoulder the quarterback’s burdens at USC in the age of NIL deals and social media scrutiny.

USC running back Travis Dye dodges Arizona State players as he carries the ball into the end zone

USC running back Travis Dye scores for a touchdown against Arizona State at the Coliseum on Saturday.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“You’re not going to be perfect every day, and I think that’s what people expect from him: perfection,” said running back Travis Dye. “He’s striving for it, but it’s just not going to happen. It’s football.”

So what if he doesn’t play well against Washington State or Utah? Will he disappear again after the game? What Will NFL Teams Think?

But the upcoming games are as many possibilities as there are trapdoors.

Williams could lead the Trojans to victories that would keep their championship ambitions alive. He could further raise his profile as a product pitchman.

The way he reacted after the Oregon State game suggested he was capable of it.

When asked what he wanted to improve on the previous week, Williams replied, “Being more consistent with my footwork, the fundamentals. It usually always comes back to basics. Went back and didn’t like the way some of my football was during the last game so I tried to be more consistent with it.

And he was.

But doing that against an Arizona State team that’s now 1-4 isn’t the same as doing it against a team with a defense that can actually stop someone.

He won’t be the first 19-year-old to take on this challenge, but he could be the first 19-year-old to be judged on these new criteria. For him and for USCs, he better be ready. Column: Is USC star QB Caleb Williams ready for bigger tests?

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