May 20, 2024

One was unlucky. Two were unlikely. Three interceptions were unbelievable.

Caleb Williams played his worst game as a Trojan on the biggest stage so far this year, throwing three interceptions and just one touchdown pass while limited to 199 yards on 23-for-37 passing as No. 10 USC lost its first game, a 48-20 rivalry defeat at No. 21 Notre Dame on Saturday. The Trojans (6-1) negated a mostly stout defensive performance by giving up touchdowns by Notre Dame’s defense and special teams and producing their second-fewest points of the Lincoln Riley era, trailing only a 17-point stinker at Oregon State last year.

“Been in college for three years now, I don’t think I’ve ever had a season or a game or anything like that,” Williams said. “In careers when you play for a while and want to play for a while, plays happen like that. Like coach said, you gotta get through, you gotta keep fighting, you gotta be a leader. It starts with the head of the snake and I’ll be better.”

Williams’ eyes were glassy as he spoke with a detached tone, more reserved compared to the emotional player who fought back tears after USC’s first loss last season at Utah. The quarterback responded to that setback by establishing himself as the nation’s best player. He ruthlessly picked apart the Fighting Irish last year, accounting for as many touchdowns (four) as he threw incompletions in a late-season exclamation point to his Heisman campaign.

In the first true test of his encore season, Williams flopped.

Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Tyree runs for a touchdown in front of USC safety Jaylin Smith.

Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Tyree runs for a touchdown in front of USC safety Jaylin Smith in the second half Saturday.

(Michael Caterina / Associated Press)

Throwing off his back foot amid incoming pressure, Williams had his second pass of the game float over tight end Lake McRee and into the waiting arms of safety Xavier Watts. Watts picked off Williams again during the second quarter as the quarterback tried to throw off-balance into double coverage when a missed block from running back Austin Jones let pressure into the backfield.

Williams threw his career-high third interception trying to escape pressure from his right side and sling a pass over two defenders, but safety Ben Minich snagged the ball before it could reach USC receiver Tahj Washington.

“Everybody took their turns,” Riley said. “We had a couple of bad calls by me. As Caleb said, he forced a couple that he doesn’t typically force, we dropped a few balls, had a couple of errors by the receivers, we missed a few things up front, we missed a few runs that we thought we blocked up very well that we didn’t make the correct cut. … There wasn’t one positive group offensively that was good enough tonight.”

Each of Williams’ interceptions turned into an Irish touchdown, building a 24-6 Notre Dame halftime lead. Even Notre Dame’s band, forming the shape of two football players throwing a ball downfield during its halftime performance, scored a touchdown before USC did.

The Trojans entered the game as the nation’s top-scoring team. They scored at least 42 points in each of their first six games for the first time in history.

But the offense had been in slow decline for weeks. It started in Colorado, where Williams threw his first interception of the season. USC was held scoreless in the fourth quarter. Last week against Arizona, USC gave up four sacks, Williams completed a season-low 56% of his passes and the running game failed to gain traction for the second consecutive week.

It took Notre Dame’s fierce defense that ranked third in passing yards given up and 12th in total defense to turn USC’s offensive fall from grace into a full crash. The Trojans surrendered a season-high six sacks, mustered a season-low 2.8 yards per carry and committed five turnovers, including two fumbles in the fourth quarter. Mario Williams’ miscue turned into a 14-yard touchdown for the Irish with 3:27 remaining.

“Sometimes when you haven’t played your best in a few weeks in a row, you can get that feeling of, well, you’re a long, long, long ways away,” Riley said. “And in reality, we’re not that far away. But we do have to push it over the top. We gotta play cleaner, we gotta coach better, we gotta play better, all three sides.”

Notre Dame defensive lineman Jason Onye celebrates with students on the field after a 48-20 win.

Notre Dame defensive lineman Jason Onye celebrates with students on the field after a 48-20 win over USC on Saturday night.

(Michael Caterina / Associated Press)

In a long-awaited role reversal, the maligned USC defense propped up the offense. The Trojans limited Notre Dame to 251 yards, led by a career-high eight tackles for freshman linebacker Tackett Curtis.

The Trojans forced punts on Notre Dame’s first two drives of the second half, allowing USC to find life on offense in the form of a 31-yard touchdown run from MarShawn Lloyd that pulled the Trojans to within 11 points with 7:20 remaining in the third quarter. But the momentum was short-lived.

Notre Dame (6-2) answered on the next drive, going 68 yards in six plays, capped by a 46-yard touchdown pass from Sam Hartman to Chris Tyree.

Even when freshman receiver Zachariah Branch electrified USC with a 60-yard punt return that gave the struggling offense a short field that led to a seven-yard touchdown pass from Williams to Brenden Rice, Notre Dame responded with a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown by Jadarian Price.

It was a “backbreaker,” Riley said.

Facing desperation and an 18-point deficit late in the fourth quarter, USC lined up for fourth and nine on its own 22.

Williams had so often created magic in the most critical moments for USC that his highlight-reel throws on the run felt like weekly routines.

What happened late Saturday night is starting to feel like an unwelcome but familiar sight.

He was pulled down for an eight-yard sack.

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