Gold: Caleb Williams' mission? Make it just 1 bad game ... and move on
LOS ANGELES — They were on a collision course with destiny, soon to live out the stuff of college football dreams, but on an unseasonably cool and windy day in Manhattan, Kansas, the USC Trojans were derailed.
The date was Sept. 21, 2002, and to that point, the Trojans were 2-0 and ranked No. 11 in the nation, with wins over Auburn and Colorado, when they visited Bill Snyder’s 25th-ranked Kansas State Wildcats.
USC quarterback Carson Palmer, then a junior, entered the game completing better than 72 percent of his passes with a pair of passing touchdowns and a pair of rushing touchdowns. Coming off a 6-6 record in Pete Carroll’s first season, the 2002 Trojans were brimming with confidence and already garnering national attention.
But on that blustery day, Palmer completed just 18-of-46 passes — a career-low 39.1 percent — for 186 yards and a score. He finished with a passer rating of just 80.3. The Wildcats, who would go on to finish the season ranked 7th in the country, held USC to just 276 yards and 16 total first downs.
It was the low point in what would end up a resurrecting season. The Trojans would go on to finish 11-2 and ranked 4th in the final AP poll. Just less than 3 months later, Palmer would stand at the podium of New York City’s Downtown Athletic Club, accepting the Heisman Trophy.
And a dynasty had its foundation.
Almost exactly two decades to the day later, another USC budding star had an off day.
But unlike Palmer’s dud against the Wildcats just over 20 years ago, Caleb Williams’ bad game did not doom the Trojans in a 17-14 win over Oregon State at a raucous Reser Stadium. In fact, it was Williams’ dart to Jordan Addison that ultimately won the game for USC.
A throw that led USC head coach Lincoln Riley to say, “That last throw, there ain’t 5 dudes in the country who can make that throw, especially in that moment. He’ll be fine.”
Before that throw, though — and especially early against the Beavers — Williams was anything but fine.
Williams finished the game just 16-of-36 for 180 yards and a score. His 44.4 completion percentage tied a career low. He looked flummoxed, flustered and frustrated by a steady Oregon State pass rush that frequently collapsed the USC pocket. There were underthrows and overthrows and everything in between.
“He just had one of those nights and just wasn’t at his best throwing-wise,” Riley told reporters on Tuesday. “Saw things pretty well, had a couple of missed decisions but just missed a few throws. That’s gonna happen. Even the best of throwers — and he’s as gifted as they come — you’re gonna have days like that. It’s like a pitcher in baseball. Sometimes you don’t have your best stuff. It happens.”
Here’s the question: How quickly can Williams regain his fastball?
The list doesn’t end with Palmer.
- Matt Leinart, Sept. 27, 2003, at Cal: 21-of-39, 277 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs, 115 passer rating
- Mark Sanchez, Oct. 11, 2008, vs. Arizona State: 13-of-26, 179 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs, 97.4 passer rating
- Sam Darnold, Sept. 29, 2017, at Washington State: 15-of-29, 164 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 92.3 passer rating
So Williams is in good company. Williams is not the first USC quarterback to carry the weight of expectations of a season and of a game and to struggle. Riley is right: It happens.
But the key for those Trojan greats? How they responded.
In their next games:
- Leinart vs. No. 16 Arizona State, 13-of-23, 289 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 182.1 passer rating
- Sanchez at Washington State: 15-of-20, 253 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INT
- Darnold vs. Oregon State: 23-of-35, 316 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 164.1 passer rating
Can Williams bounce back on Saturday vs. Arizona State? That’ll be the measure of both Williams and the new-look USC offense, which despite boatloads of talent, is still a work-in-progress.
Riley, at least, believes that Williams will rebound in a hurry.
“There were a couple of things fundamentally, but there is every game,” Riley said. “Even the games when we complete 90% of our passes, there are always a few things functionally that you go back and correct. But I just think he will get settled back in — kind of like he did at the end of the game. He did a good job of resetting and made some big-boy throws.”
It’s not about big-boy throws, though.
It’s about a big-boy attitude.
The biggest thing wrong with Williams on Saturday was not his arm, nor his legs. In fact, Williams was at his best when trying to work his way out of trouble against the Beavers.
No, what plagued Williams was the rest of his body: His shoulders, his face, his furrowed eyebrows. When things weren’t going right for the Trojans on Saturday — and they rarely went right — Williams was obviously frustrated. Until a late-game touchdown drive, that is.
Following a frustrating drive that started at the USC 5-yard line and ended at the USC 2-yard line following a tackle for loss and a false start penalty, Williams marched off the field seething. Riley, sensing his quarterback’s frustration, patiently conveyed to his quarterback the need to be present.
When Oregon State scored after just 2 plays on the ensuing drive to take the late 14-10 lead, Williams rallied the troops.
When Then he strutted onto the field and led USC on a game-winning, 11-play, 84-yard drive. It was the kind of drive that eventually defines a season, and Williams went 5-for-8 for 57 yards, including the clinching 21-yard scoring pass to Addison.
Caleb Williams to Jordan Addison and the Trojans lead 17-14 with 1:13 left to play
— Scott Schrader (@Scott_Schrader) September 25, 2022
Before that point, he was just 11-of-28.
“We don’t bypass it as an outlier,” he said. “I think that the deal with throwing, everybody thinks about throwing is just a quarterback and a physical thing. If any of these things are out of sync, it can look a little bit off — protection is off sync, a route is a little bit out of sync, footwork, bad preparation, bad coaching. Anything can make it look a little bit off, and we had instances of all of those.”
How will Williams bounce back? That’s the question.
But it might not be answered on Saturday against the Sun Devils, and maybe not even the following week against the Washington State Cougars.
Check back in 2 weeks.
That’s when the Trojans take on No. 12 Utah.
That’s when we’ll find out if this was just a blip, or something to be concerned about.