April 17, 2024

BOULDER, Colo. — For a brief moment on Saturday at Folsom Field, Caleb Williams found himself in a place he hasn’t been much over the course of the past year: on the margins of the spotlight, not in its center.

After winning the Heisman Trophy last December, Williams has become the focal figure of college football, the next great thing, the likely No. 1 overall NFL draft pick. On Saturdays, he’s omnipresent, appearing both on the field and likely on your TV too. But as Williams warmed up for the much-anticipated showdown between the Trojans and Deion Sanders’ Colorado Buffaloes, the focus, as it has for most of this season, gravitated toward Sanders and the hoopla that surrounds him.

Prime Time’s procession out of the tunnel and onto the field for pregame warmups has become its own event, and on Saturday, the walk had its share of star-studded opening acts before he took his customary stroll. Former NBA players Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, rappers DaBaby and Lecrae, DeSean Jackson and CC Sabathia all walked out of the tunnel and on the sidelines, each of their steps echoed by those of photographers, fans, videographers and media. Eventually, Sanders finally emerged and every lens fixated on him as he sent the crowd into a frenzy and the celebrities on hand flocking to him. He was the main event.

Then, the game began, and Williams took the stage.

He had gone to bed earlier than usual the night before, the only tweak he had made to his routine given the 10 a.m. kickoff. Everything else was the same, and so was Williams’ customary efficiency and jaw-dropping plays. Over the course of the game, with his dad, Carl, watching from the standing room only press box, Williams scrambled as he does. He took off, threw across his body, off one foot or the other, attempting deep balls and short slants alike to 10 different receivers, and made them look effortless as he’s wont to do.

“The kid always plays that way. I haven’t seen him play badly,” Sanders said. “That kid is a flat-out baller, man. He is a difference-maker. He makes them better. The thought process, even just directing traffic and putting them in the right playcalls and the right situations, he does a wonderful job of checking off and changing things and getting the ball out of his hands. It was a pleasure for me to play against him and their head coach. That was fun.”

By the time USC emerged with a 48-41 win, a red-faced Williams jogged off the field having thrown for 403 yards and six touchdowns (tied for a career high) on 40 throws and 30 completions. Besides his lone interception — his first this season — USC had needed every one of those completions to edge the Buffs in a game that became another example of the paradox that is this Trojans team: talented to the brim and winning, but not without its worrisome issues, especially on defense.

“We’re always in it with Caleb, of course,” senior safety Bryson Shaw said. “But we want it to be on us. We want to be the defense. We want to make the plays.”

The defense has been an issue with this USC team and it remains so. Players and coaches are aware of it. Despite the flashes of improvement, they know the pressure that comes with yet another struggling performance. Shaw went out of his way Saturday to combat the narrative that defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is to blame, noting they’re the ones not executing.

“As players, we are letting him down,” Shaw said. “He’s putting us in the right spot. We’re not making plays. We’re missing tackles. We’re not doing our job.”

Despite the fact Riley said he believes his team’s issues have evolved this season and improved, the script of most USC games since he arrived seems to be crafted in similar cadence: strong starts, shaky finishes. Riley always points out that a win is a win, and he’s right. USC has learned, by sheer necessity, to win ugly. The question, of course, is how sustainable that will be going forward.

That answer seems to be as long as Williams is under center, anything is possible.

On a day when plenty were paying attention to Deion and Shedeur Sanders, Williams made another thorough statement as the best quarterback in the game. Until this game, Williams had mostly cruised through USC’s first four games, at times not needing to play the fourth quarter or even the second half and still putting up video game numbers. Against Colorado, the game asked more of him, and he delivered.

“Things have been working,” Williams said, matter-of-factly, when asked about his performance. “And you got to keep going, keep working hard. It’s the only way things keep being smooth and feeling that way.”

Postgame, Shedeur — who finished with an impressive 371 yards and four touchdowns of his own — was asked about facing Williams.

“I feel like my stage is my stage,” Shedeur said, when asked about sharing the stage with Williams. “He’s a great player, but it’s not on his stage or anything like that.”

If there’s anything Williams has shown the college football world over the past two seasons it’s that he can turn any stage into his own. Saturday, that stage was Folsom Field. But going forward, those stages will only get tougher. Home games against Utah and Washington await. Road challenges at Notre Dame and Oregon loom.

Can the defense improve? Will the offense have to outscore everyone? Can Williams keep this up?

“As the season continues to go on, certain experiences are needed,” wide receiver Tahj Washington said. “[We’d] rather have them now than later.”

For Riley, the trip to Colorado was a productive and positive reminder that any game in this environment won’t be easy and further confirmation that they have the ability to win even when they stumble.

“Listen, we’re a team that gets circled every single week and so yeah, to come win these on the road, you go find a way,” Riley said. “I promise you at the end of the year nobody’s going to look back on this and care, right? They’re going to look back and see a dub.”

Five games into the season, USC has five wins and though the record is two-dimensional, everyone has watched the 3-D version. The wins are wins but in the quest for a spot in the College Football Playoff and beyond, USC will have to outrun its deficiencies or completely erase them on the fly. The former is difficult, while the latter almost feels impossible.

And yet for every ailment, there is Williams, performing miracles in the backfield and pushing his ceiling ever so higher with every game.

“People definitely take what he does for granted,” wide receiver Brenden Rice said. “It won’t be until he leaves that people will really realize the greatness that they’re watching and what they really get to come out here and see every single day.”

USC knows the greatness they have in front of them. The challenge at hand is not wasting it.

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