April 16, 2024

Rams running back Kyren Williams revered one star above all others at SoFi Stadium Thursday, and it wasn’t who you might think.

It wasn’t new Dodger Shohei Ohtani, though the two-way standout’s appearance on the field before the game and in the team’s locker room afterward turned a bunch of supposedly blasé professional athletes into stunned little kids, so impressed were they by his size and presence.

After Williams ran 10 yards off left guard in the third quarter to score the touchdown that helped launch the Rams to a 30-22 victory over New Orleans and solidified their hold on an NFC wild-card playoff spot, he ran directly to the stands, ball in hand. He tossed it to his mom, Taryn, achieving another major goal in a season dotted with impressive feats.

Earlier in the game, he had reached a milestone by passing 1,000 yards rushing, the first Ram to do that since Todd Gurley in 2018. But the experience of tossing the ball to his mother, the brightest star in his life, was almost overwhelming for him.

“That was everything. That was literally everything,” he said of throwing the ball to his mother after his 104-yard rushing performance, his sixth this season of 100 or more yards rushing.

“I can’t explain it to you because she knows, and I say ‘we’ because we went through it together,” he said. “Since I was young, I’ve always been overlooked. Always been doubted. And I’m finally on the stage where I’ve waited my whole life to be on. It’s being able to share that moment with her, and for her to have her screen time.”

His run was perfect. So was his timing in being within throwing distance.

“That was my first time scoring on that side of the end zone,” he said, smiling. “I’ve been waiting, like, since the first game of the season to go throw a ball at her. She was front row, front center, and I had to do it, and it was fun.”

Stardom is currency here in southern California. Williams and rookie wide receiver Puka Nacua were fifth-round draft picks — Williams in 2022 out of Notre Dame and Nacua this year out of Brigham Young — and were unheralded when they arrived.

But if they began as understudies, they’ve become stars in classic Hollywood fashion, bringing skill and life and depth to a Rams team that was expected to measure progress in small steps this season but instead has jumped ahead in happy leaps and big bounds.

They’re 8-7 after winning their regular-season home finale and the odds favor them for a playoff spot.

Nacua was targeted 11 times Thursday by quarterback Matthew Stafford and caught nine passes for 164 yards and one touchdown. He also picked up 16 yards rushing on two carries, but his biggest thrill might have been seeing Ohtani wearing a Rams jersey with number 17 on it, Nacua’s number.

“I looked up to the big screen and they were showing him on the camera and it put a big smile on my face,” said Nacua, who had watched the Lakers’ game Monday from a prime spot just behind celebrity row.

Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani watches the Rams beat the New Orleans Saints from Rams owner Stan Kroenke's suite.

Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani watches the Rams beat the New Orleans Saints from Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s suite.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“Seeing him rock the 17, I thought it was cool.”

It’s Nacua’s world, and we’re all just living in it. His name has been mentioned for offensive rookie of the year honors, and deservedly so. Nacua has racked up 1,327 yards receiving with two games left, putting him within reach of the rookie receiving record of 1,473 set in 1960 by Bill Groman of the Houston Oilers in a 14-game season.

“It’s cool. It’s not my main goal,” Nacua said of the record. “It’s been fun to be a part of every football game that we’ve been playing since we were able to come back from the bye.

“What coach has been preaching is these games that we’re playing in December, the playoffs have already begun for us. To be in that playoff mindset has been fun. It’s definitely something that I’m not used to, that we’re playing late into December, so I’m finding ways to adjust to that, but it’s been super fun.”

Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua breaks a tackle against the Saints.

Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua breaks a tackle against the Saints.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Williams, who missed four games earlier this season because of an ankle injury, showed no signs of repeating the two fumbles he committed last Sunday in the Rams’ 28-20 victory over the Washington Commanders. He was sure-handed, confident, and effective in giving the Rams a valuable run-pass balance.

“We’re different when he plays. You just look at it,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “The energy, the production, just the overall work ethic, there’s so many guys on this team that you just say man, they are exactly what we’re looking for in Rams. I love him and I’m so proud of the way that he responded.

“And he did that last week in the game. We saw him respond in the game. You look at the amount of work that we’re giving him, for him to be able to get his body turned over on a Thursday night, to have the production that he had, to play with the toughness, it’s been outstanding, and there’s a lot of guys that are in that mold. Kyren, I’m so happy for him. It’s just awesome to see him get his flowers that he deserves.”

The Dodgers have added a couple of megastars in Ohtani and pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, but a couple of stars have been born as Rams this season, in Nacua and Williams. Their light is just beginning to glow.

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