Caleb Williams ran more times than he did in either of his two previous games, the development eliciting a curious question during the Trojans’ postgame news conference.
Was using his legs a point of emphasis as USC prepared for the game?
“For sure, it wasn’t a point of emphasis,” Williams said, flashing a smile as he glanced over at coach Lincoln Riley.
He ran on Saturday night because he had to.
Williams’ season-high 12 rushing attempts in the 45-17 victory over Fresno State included three sacks. Some of the others were on plays in which the quarterback was chased out of the pocket.
“I tried not to run,” Williams said, “but that’s an ability I have.”
As much attention as Williams has attracted as the poster child of the Transfer Portal Trojans, he still remains something of a mystery, his Heisman-worthy statistics compiled against entirely overmatched opponents.
Spectacular performances against Rice and Stanford do not guarantee success against Utah or Notre Dame, which made the game against Fresno State instructive.
The Bulldogs presented the 19-year-old Williams with as much adversity as he’s encountered here — just a smidgen of adversity but adversity nonetheless.
“We said that all week with this team: We’re going to get tested, and we’re going to face some situations with this team that we haven’t been in yet as a team,” Riley said.
Williams was sacked twice during USC’s final possession of the first half. He was also sacked during the drive before that.
The Trojans did not score on either possession and went into the break with the visiting Bulldogs still within striking distance at 21-10.
“Of course, he was hot because we didn’t score,” tight end Malcolm Epps said of Williams.
Williams responded emphatically.
Behind Williams, the Trojans scored 21 points during their first three drives of the second half, placing the game out of the Bulldogs’ limited reach.
“His head is always up,” Epps said. “Regardless of what it is, regardless of [whether it’s] at practice, I mess up a play, it’s always keep going, keep going, keep going, next play. “
Completing 16 of 26 passes during an uneven first half, Williams was 9 of 11 in the second. He finished with 284 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown.
“I thought we had to make some adjustments there after the second quarter, and I thought the adjustments were well received,” Riley said. “I went out and executed them well. He’s learning to win and progress in different ways. That’s what quarterbacks do when they get older and more experienced. He’s seeing it well and has a good grasp of what we’re doing.”
Williams set up the first of USC’s three second-half touchdowns with an 18-yard pass to Jordan Addison.
Williams also set up the next, this time with a 32-yard pass to the back shoulder of fellow Oklahoma transfer Mario Williams.
USC scored its final touchdown on a pass by Williams, a 10-yard completion to a wide-open Epps.
“We went to halftime, we collected ourselves,” Williams said. “We wanted to play a full game. That’s been our whole thing this week.
“Also, it was to be the hunters, not the hunted. That was our mentality. So, we came out fighting, came out shooting and we had a pretty good third quarter.”
In three games, Williams has thrown for eight touchdowns and run for two more. He still hasn’t turned over the ball.
USC scored touchdowns on each of its first three drives against Fresno State. But the Bulldogs neutralized the Trojans’ deep threats, particularly Addison, who was Williams’ preferred target early in the game.
Addison is bound to be double-teamed at some point. What then?
Depth on the offensive line is also a concern. When left tackle Bobby Haskins was forced to visit the injury tent in the second quarter, Williams was sacked on the next play.
The team’s primary left tackle, Courtland Ford, was injured a week earlier.
Williams didn’t sound worried.
“It was small mistakes,” I said. “Very small mistakes. Those small mistakes lead to stalling on drives, getting pushback, having a sack where I should have just dirtied the ball or threw it out of bounds and gotten a field goal. Just really small mistakes.”
Addison very well could be the nation’s No. 1 receiver. Running backs Travis Dye and Austin Jones each rushed for more than 100 yards on Saturday while averaging more than nine yards per carry.
But this is Williams’ offense. This is Williams’ team.
And where the Trojans end up will ultimately be determined by whether the kinds of adjustments he made against Fresno State could be made against the likes of Utah or Notre Dame.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.