May 28, 2024

USC players crowded the sideline, craning their necks to see the drive that could decide the Trojans’ playoff fate. Some stood on top of the bench as Utah drove 54 yards into field goal range. Others climbed on top of crates used to transfer equipment to see the final play.

Caleb Williams was the only one sitting as Utah’s game-winning field goal went through the uprights.

Four days after the heartbreaking loss, Williams said he was trying to stay composed during the frantic final moments. The Heisman winner’s brand of stoic leadership will be put to the test as the No. 24 Trojans (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) try to salvage conference championship hopes, their once-promising season having taken a turn for the worse.

Effectively eliminated from College Football Playoff contention with a second loss, USC remains in the hunt for a spot at the Pac-12 title game. After traveling to play California on Saturday, USC finishes the season at home against No. 5 Washington and at No. 8 Oregon before hosting No. 23 UCLA.

“We’re halfway through the season. You don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen,” Williams said. “You keep going, you keep fighting. You stay out here, extra time, be with your guys because you never know when that opportunity is going to come. When that opportunity comes, you want to be able to seize that opportunity. So we’re going to keep going, keep fighting on and keep trying to reach our goals.”

The quarterback sat motionless for several minutes after his first defeat at the Coliseum. Running back Austin Jones patted Williams on the head before sitting next to him in solidarity. Offensive lineman Justin Dedich walked over to shake Williams’ hand. Offensive line coach Josh Henson finally pulled Williams up from the bench, and the junior briefly got hugs from family in the stands before walking off the field.

On Sunday, Williams decompressed from the emotional loss by reconnecting with those closest to him. He tried — unsuccessfully — to get his mind off the game. He didn’t appear on “Almost Pro,” a weekly podcast presented by NIL collective the Tommy Group that he hosts, for the second consecutive week.

Podcast appearances, TV commercials and neverending NFL draft talk have fueled the rise of Williams’ profile. The conversation about his pro prospects started with a preseason feature in GQ in which his father, Carl, said he might consider returning to school based on which NFL team gets the No. 1 pick. More outrageous and unsubstantiated claims popped up suggesting Williams wants part ownership of the team that drafts him, even though the NFL has elaborate equity and collective bargaining rules that would make awarding shares to active players nearly impossible.

This week, with the Trojans out of playoff contention, media personalities debated whether Williams should sit out the rest of the year to preserve his health.

But with pressure mounting after a second loss, teammates watched Williams return to practice Monday as usual.

“Haven’t really seen him flinch from the last two losses,” offensive lineman Mason Murphy said. “He just keeps leading the team how he did before.”

USC quarterback Caleb Williams is stopped just short of the goal line by Utah's Jonah Elliss and Miles Battle.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams is stopped just short of the goal line by Utah defensive end Jonah Elliss (83) and cornerback Miles Battle (1) in the 34-32 loss.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“What you guys don’t see on the field is Caleb is going to go over here and rally the troops,” receiver Brenden Rice said. “He may not be the one that goes ahead and yells at the sidelines because he doesn’t want that perception given off, but anytime we’re in those huddles or we go into the locker room, he’s a leader, he’s composed, he’s ready to give us that speech to go out there and finish and win the game.”

Williams put the Trojans in position to win Saturday after rushing for an 11-yard touchdown with 1:46 remaining, capitalizing on a 61-yard punt return from freshman Zachariah Branch. Williams had a team-high 10 carries against the Utes, rushing for 27 yards while getting sacked four times.

The junior has said he prefers to not rely on his legs, but he has had 10 or more carries in three consecutive games after attempting no more than nine in any of USC’s first six games. He overcame a lackluster passing effort against Arizona (14 for 25, 219 yards and one touchdown) by tying a career high with three rushing touchdowns.

Through the air, Williams was outpacing his Heisman numbers from a year ago during the first five games, throwing for 21 touchdowns to one interception compared to 12 touchdowns and one interception last year. But he has just two touchdown passes in the last three games, including the first game of his USC career without a touchdown pass in the loss to Utah.

USC failed to score a touchdown in the second and third quarters against Utah, continuing the team’s recent trend of inconsistent offense that started when the Trojans went scoreless in the fourth quarter against Colorado.

“A lot of [the mistakes] were because we were playing 10-on-11,” Williams said of USC’s offensive slump against Utah. “At one point, different person, different things like that, including myself, one person messes up, you’re playing 10-on-11 at that point. It’s hard to win games, hard to go score.”

USC did get one critical piece of its offensive formula back Wednesday as coach Lincoln Riley returned to practice after missing the previous two sessions. He is being treated for pneumonia, a USC spokesperson said.

As Riley greeted players during warmups and stretching, the staff managing the practice playlist welcomed him back with Eminem’s “Without Me” as the workout’s first song.

“Guess who’s back,” blared from the speakers, “back again.”

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