Caleb Williams copes with Heisman hype by focusing on leading USC to a title




USC quarterback Caleb Williams warms up before playing Notre Dame on Saturday at the Coliseum.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams warms up before playing Notre Dame on Saturday at the Coliseum.  

The torrent of congratulatory texts and calls were already blowing up his phone by the time cameras caught Caleb Williams coyly strike that famous Heisman pose along the USC sideline, the star quarterback humoring the Trojans teammates who begged him to do so.

The Heisman Trophy race was all but locked up by that point, his dazzling four-touchdown performance in a win over Notre Dame as fitting a final coronation as any undecided voter could hope for. But as the premature congratulations continued to roll in, Williams has done his best to tune them out - after he sends a "Thank you" text in reply, of course.

"We have bigger goals in mind here toward the end of this season," Williams said Tuesday.

The first of those comes Friday in Las Vegas, where USC will duel Utah with a Pac-12 title on the line and the hope of avenging its only loss hanging on its slippery star quarterback. Beat Utah, and the College Football Playoff semifinals almost certainly await.

In between, however, there should be plenty of time for acceptance speeches.

Williams should probably start writing his now. Not only is he the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman, Williams was also named a finalist for the Davey O'Brien Award, given to the nation's best quarterback, and the Maxwell Award, also given to the top player. He's a shoo-in as an All-American - and would be USC's fifth quarterback to hold the honor - and could be the captain of the AFCA Good Works team, for good measure.

But the Heisman is the prestigious honor that looms over USC and Williams with the biggest game of his life awaiting this weekend. Not that Williams seems to mind. He's been conditioned his whole life to stay poised under pressure.

"I want to win and getting too big-headed and focusing on the highs and anything like that is where you start going downhill," Williams said. "So focusing on routine, being here, trying to win with these guys and leading them keeps things in perspective."

USC quarterback Caleb Williams leaps into the end zone for a touchdown against Notre Dame.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams leaps into the end zone for a touchdown against Notre Dame.  

That wouldn't stop his teammates from marveling a bit over their quarterback. Asked about one of Williams' stunning scrambles against Notre Dame, Justin Dedich smiled.

"I didn't know who to block, man," USC's right guard said. "I went right, I went left. I was like, what's he gonna do? I thought maybe he would slide. I was just watching it. I kind of looked like a dummy, just running around."

"It's unbelievable, the things he can do."

Not so vengeful

Lincoln Riley is no stranger to the revenge game narrative. Which is exactly why he was eager to shut it down Tuesday in the lead-up to Friday's rematch with Utah, who dealt the Trojans their only defeat last month.

"This is not a revenge game," Riley said. "That's not what this is. We played a really good football game, as did Utah up in Salt Lake. It was an elite college football game. It came down to one play here or there. They got us that time. But this is not about that game. This is a new game, a new challenge, a new setting, teams have evolved. Both teams have changed certainly throughout the year."

Those adjustments have only ever worked in Riley's favor. Twice before at Oklahoma, in 2018 and 2020, Riley avenged regular season losses with victories over the same opponents (Texas and Iowa State) in the Big 12 title game. The win in 2018 sent the Sooners to the College Football Playoff semifinals.

Riley was asked Tuesday what he's learned from that rematch experience that could help this week.

"I think you have to understand that the way the first [game] played out is not necessarily the way the second one plays out," Riley said. "Lot of times they actually play out very differently in terms of flow of the game and just kind of how it goes. You have to reset yourself and be ready to go."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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