May 19, 2024

Caleb Williams slowly shook his head. He shrugged his shoulders one at a time. He cocked his eyebrow in thought. The Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback didn’t know how he would want fans to remember him if Saturday’s game is indeed goodbye.

“I honestly haven’t thought of anything like that,” Williams said.

As Williams wrestled with the disappointment of another championship-less season in college, the potential end of his short but thrilling, two-year USC career apparently snuck up on him. Projected as the No. 1 overall pick, the draft-eligible junior may play his final game at the Coliseum — or his last game in a USC jersey — on Saturday against UCLA.

Williams already put his mark on the rivalry last year, leading the Trojans to a thrilling, 48-45 win in the Rose Bowl with 470 passing yards and three total touchdowns. The win sealed USC’s trip to the Pac-12 championship game.

This rivalry game has much lower stakes. Both teams are unranked. UCLA coach Chip Kelly is on the hot seat as the Bruins (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12) have lost two consecutive games, including a 17-7 dud to Arizona State last week. The Trojans (7-4, 5-3) have lost four of their last five games.

The late-season collapse means Williams, despite hoisting the most prestigious individual award in the sport, could leave college without a conference or national championship if he doesn’t return for his senior year. But that shouldn’t diminish his impact, teammates said.

“We know Caleb, he’s the No. 1 pick, no matter what,” running back MarShawn Lloyd said. “No matter the way the season goes, Caleb is a great player, a great leader and a great teammate.”

USC’s hopes to win a Pac-12 championship fell apart last week with a loss to Oregon. It knocked the Trojans out of contention and doomed them to a bowl game outside of the prestigious New Year’s Six.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams scampers out of the pocket during a loss to Utah

USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) scampers out of the pocket during a loss to Utah on Oct. 21 at the Coliseum.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

When asked whether he plans to play in USC’s bowl game, Williams redirected his answer to his upcoming NFL decision. Not playing during Thanksgiving week will allow him to spend time with family and evaluate his options.

“But obviously, if I’m staying here at USC, I don’t think I would not be out there” for the bowl game, Williams said. “So it’s just a decision I have to make.”

Since running backs Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette started the trend of high NFL draft picks skipping postseason games in 2016, only two first-round quarterbacks have opted out of their bowl games, both in the last two seasons. Anthony Richardson sat out Florida’s appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl last year before being selected fourth overall, and Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett missed the Peach Bowl in 2021 before he became the 20th pick.

Of the 24 quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2017, 11 were outside of the New Year’s Six bowls and only Richardson sat out. Tua Tagovailoa and Josh Rosen were injured, missing the 2019 Citrus Bowl and 2017 Cactus Bowl, respectively.

“I’d say a player that went out there and gave his all every play, every chance he got. I’d say a player that cared for his teammates, I’d say a player that wanted to go out there and win every single game that we had.”

— Caleb Williams on how he hopes to be remembered by USC fans

But Williams is not considered just another talented quarterback. Some scouts believed he could have been the No. 1 pick last year when he was just a sophomore. Analysts often compare him to two-time Super Bowl champion and NFL most valuable player Patrick Mahomes.

Protecting that kind of ceiling on his potential demands intense attention and care. Some analysts even said after USC lost to Utah that Williams should sit out the rest of the season because the second loss effectively knocked the Trojans out of the national championship picture.

He never entertained it.

“Just the nature of how I was raised and being around these guys all year round,” the junior said. “I work out with them all year round, we run, lift, we go out and have fun together, we enjoy each other’s presence and it means the world to me to be able to end this season off and this regular season. … I was going to stick it out regardless of whatever decision I was going to make.”

When the hot take started circulating around social media, Lloyd didn’t even acknowledge it. The running back knew his quarterback.

“I knew what type of player he is. I knew what type of leader he is,” said Lloyd, whose history with Williams dates to their youth football days. “Caleb is a competitor. He believes in himself and he also believes in his team, so I knew exactly when I saw that type of information that came out, that Caleb was going to go until the brakes fall off.”

With USC’s season spinning out of control, Willliams’ playmaking has never wavered. He fought through Oregon’s aggressive pass rush with the same scrambling magic that won him the Heisman. His 11 rushing touchdowns are tied for most in the Pac-12.

After Williams tied his career high with six touchdown passes against Colorado, receiver Brenden Rice said, “it won’t be until [Williams] leaves that people will really realize the greatness that they’re watching.” Saturday’s game could be the final chance for USC fans.

After a three-second pause to consider how he wanted the Trojans faithful to remember him, Williams finally offered his plea.

“I’d say a player that went out there and gave his all every play, every chance he got,” Williams said. “I’d say a player that cared for his teammates, I’d say a player that wanted to go out there and win every single game.”

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