May 19, 2024

His first loss at USC, almost exactly one year ago, hit Caleb Williams like an emotional haymaker. The quarterback carried the Trojans all the way to the brink, conjuring whatever magic he could to extend USC’s spotless start to the season. But it wasn’t enough. Utah slipped past USC on a late two-point conversion, a devastating dagger to the Trojans.

Williams left the field that night in Salt Lake City with tears in his eyes and a fire in his gut, convinced it could be a catalyst.

“I hate losing,” he said, bleary-eyed. “I really, really hate it.”

So through the rest of October and November, Williams simply didn’t allow USC to lose. The Trojans went on a five-game win streak, while Williams went absolutely nuclear, scoring 22 touchdowns and locking up the Heisman Trophy in the process. It wasn’t until the Trojans got a rematch with Utah in the Pac-12 title game that Williams felt the sting of defeat again.

That familiar feeling crept to the surface once again last Saturday at Notre Dame, in the wake of USC’s first loss of this season. But considering how last season played out, the hope around USC is that a crippling midseason defeat once again could serve as an emotional springboard into the second half of its schedule, which is far less forgiving than the first.

“You don’t want to be in a situation where you have to use [a loss] as motivation, but we are in that situation now,” Williams said Wednesday. “So let’s use it as motivation. Let’s keep going. Let’s find ways to get better. Truth over harmony.”

The truth is it’s Williams who needs to be better. The quarterback was intercepted three times by Notre Dame. He was sacked six times while under constant pressure in a collapsing pocket. And he struggled to move the ball down the field, finishing with a meager 199 yards, his lowest total since before that first Utah loss last season.

It wasn’t tears so much as frustration and disbelief that welled up as he left the field in South Bend. It was at that emotional nadir that a Notre Dame fan ran up to Williams and recorded himself taunting the quarterback and his painted nails.

The video clip, which went viral, didn’t sit too well with Williams, who responded Wednesday by telling reporters that “everyone wants to be in these two 12.5 shoes here.”

“I’ve got a lot of guys over here that I’ve got to lead. So some opinion of a sheep, lions don’t worry about that,” Williams said.

With No. 14 Utah (5-1, 2-1) awaiting Saturday night at the Coliseum, No. 18 USC (6-1, 4-0) has plenty to worry about.

Forget for a moment the emotional heft inherent to a matchup like Utah, which single-handedly kept USC out of the College Football Playoff last season. Amid the many crises USC seems to be facing, it was merely a footnote this week.

USC’s defense remains a sore spot after half the season. Its offensive line has unraveled the last two games. And Williams hasn’t exactly looked like himself lately, culminating in his “first bad game in college.”

“That’s one game in the past three years that I’ve had a bad game,” Williams said of the 48-20 loss to the Irish. “So you don’t let that one game bring you down and cause you doubt. It’s something that Kobe [Bryant] said. Doubt is a weird thing. When you’re striving for greatness, striving for things like that, you’ll have failure, you’ll have success, but doubt, why even think about it? Why have something like that ruin something you’ve been working hard for?”

USC quarterback Caleb Williams is sacked as he attempts to throw the ball.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) attempts to throw the ball as Notre Dame linebacker Jaylen Sneed, center, and defensive lineman Howard Cross III, right, pressure him.

(Michael Caterina / Associated Press)

No one is doubting Williams, but USC can’t afford to have him struggle in the same fashion Saturday, lest it lose control of its season. Nor can the quarterback be expected to operate any longer in a collapsing pocket. But against Utah’s vaunted front, it won’t be easy for Williams or his offensive line to right the ship.

“We know that if we can give him time, and we can do our jobs, he’s the best player in the country,” left tackle Jonah Monheim said. “He’ll be all right from there.”

The Utes terrorized Williams during their two meetings last season, tallying a combined 11 sacks and 44 pressures. This season they lead the Pac-12 and rank seventh in the nation in sacks, led by defensive lineman Jonah Elliss, whose nine sacks and 13½ tackles for loss have him on track for an All-American campaign.

“They’re extremely aggressive. You have to give them credit,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “You can tell they’ve been in that system for a long, long, long time, and they’ve recruited for that system for a long, long, long, long time. And they do a tremendous job of it. Against a group that’s going to be tremendously aggressive, you have to make some of your big plays too. We were able to do that quite a bit in the first game, and we did it at times in the second game too. But this is going to be a new challenge.”

Whether that clean slate includes a new quarterback for Utah remains to be seen.

Utah has been without star quarterback Cam Rising all season after he suffered a serious knee injury in the Rose Bowl. His return has long been rumored, and while he hasn’t been ruled out, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham this week even discussed the possibility of a medical redshirt, allowing Rising to return for a seventh season.

In Rising’s absence, Utah has tried to trade off between two quarterbacks, Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson, neither of whom has been that effective. Through six games they’ve combined for 897 passing yards and just four touchdowns, 19 fewer than Williams has thrown in seven games.

That should be music to the ears of the Trojans’ secondary after it was torched by Rising for 725 yards and five touchdowns between their two meetings last season.

Williams had his way with Utah in that first loss a year ago. The question this time, with both USC and its quarterback reeling, is whether he can return to that level, and whether that would be enough to author a win.

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