, Caleb Williams led No. 7 USC to a wild, 48-45 win over UCLA, clinching a spot in the Pac-12 title game and moving to the doorstep of a CFP berth.,

College Football

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PASADENA, Calif. — Twice before in his career, Lincoln Riley arrived at the Rose Bowl harboring championship aspirations and a Heisman Trophy finalist behind center. 

Experiencing the chilly air beneath the San Gabriel Mountains for the first time in cardinal and gold against the crosstown rivals that call the revered venue home, Riley did so for a third time on Saturday night as No. 7 USC outlasted No. 16 UCLA to punch the program’s ticket to the Pac-12 title game in two weeks and keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive.

“An iconic type game that lived up to the billing,” Riley said with a large grin after the wild, back-and-forth, 48-45 affair. “With all that was riding on it on top of it, for us to find a way to get it done was a clutch performance by our team.”

You can put much of that directly at the feet of quarterback Caleb Williams, who made his first opportunity to play in the series such a memorable one that it may well end up boosting him to the top of every Heisman list come sunrise in Los Angeles on Sunday.

“He’s been one of the best players in the country this year, he’s played really well,” remarked Riley. “If those things come to fruition, that’s great. But those are kind of byproducts of why we’re here. It’s not why we’re here, and I feel I can speak for him in saying that’s not why he’s here.”

No. 7 USC defeats No. 16 UCLA in thriller

RJ Young reacts to the Trojans’ 48-45 victory over the Bruins on Saturday.

It may not be why he’s leading Troy back to prominence after bursting onto the scene last year with Riley at Oklahoma, but it is where the QB is at right now. As other competitors for the award have either gotten hurt, trailed off or seen their teams slip from national relevance, Williams saved his best for the primetime audience with a career-high in total yards (470 through the air, 33 on the ground) and three total touchdowns. 

Every key third-down conversion, there was Williams flicking the ball effortlessly past the chains. Every near-sack, there was the sophomore dancing out of pressure to find daylight for a play down the field. Anytime there was a play to be made, there was little doubt who would get it done.

It didn’t hurt that the Williams we saw against the Bruins had most of his full complement of weapons back and fully healthy. Aside from tailback Travis Dye, who suffered a season-ending leg injury last Friday against Colorado, just about all the Trojans’ skill position players were on the field and contributing. Running back Austin Jones accounted for 120 yards and two scores. Finally 100 percent after suffering an ankle injury in the team’s lone loss to Utah, reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison notched 11 catches for 178 yards and a beautiful over-the-shoulder touchdown just inside the pylon that Williams dropped in perfectly. 

All told, three different players scored on the ground and nine different players recorded at least one reception. 

“Being down 14-nothing and not even flinching, not even thinking about flinching,” Riley said of what’s most impressive about his team. “You can’t write the script first, you have to be ready to respond and respond with discipline. 

“You go down the list and I think we keep talking about the closeness and culture of this team and I think it was on full display tonight.”

Even more remarkable considering that this roster underwent one of the grandest experiences in the sport’s history after Riley arrived in town from Norman. Previous starters at quarterback wound up in the same roles at Ole Miss and Pittsburgh but the prodigious young head coach simply dipped into the transfer portal and landed Williams. Addison followed over the summer, Jones came by way of Stanford and left tackle Bobby Haskins traded coasts after previously being at Virginia. 

Linebacker Shane Lee brought a different kind of approach after spending time at Alabama and led the team in tackles against UCLA while hauling in an interception. Corner Mekhi Blackmon, by way of Colorado, managed another pick in a key moment during the first half to keep things close. 

All over the field, USC players with little to no firsthand knowledge of what it means to beat the Bruins wound up making critical play after critical play. It reinforced just how good a job Riley has done in short order turning around one of the West Coast powerhouses, taking Troy from four wins in 2021 to the brink of a playoff berth less than 11 months later. 

At the same time, the Trojans would not have held on for the win had it been for two former five-stars that each had up-and-down careers in the program but stuck around following the coaching transition to finally carve out a major role. 

Receiver Kyle Ford recorded three catches for 73 yards but it was his lone touchdown grab leaping over a defender in the fourth quarter that got the sellout crowd on their feet. Former No. 1 overall recruit Korey Foreman sealed the final result with a diving interception in the final 90 seconds.

“When we first got here, the main thing we wanted to do is come together,” said Lee. “We’ve seen the growth. The bonds that we have with each other on our team, the energy and passion that we have, is something you’ve got to be a part of to feel. To me, I think that’s the biggest reason why we’re here and competing for championships.” 

It’s all come together with remarkable speed and thanks to the result on Saturday night, has the team right back on the door step of a crowning achievement few predicted back in August.

Here are three takeaways from the Rose Bowl:

Hello Heisman

Despite the presence of the same few names on just about every Heisman Trophy candidate list the past few weeks, no player had really taken control of the race to New York and announced himself as the front-runner.

Until, perhaps, Saturday night as the sun set on the San Gabriel mountains and darkness arrived in Los Angeles.

Playing in a prime-time game on FOX against a top-20 opponent, Williams elevated his already outstanding season to another level against the crosstown rivals that he nearly transferred to during the offseason. The sophomore was dazzling both inside and outside the pocket, throwing for 470 yards, scrambling for 32 more, and accounting for three total touchdowns. Though he did throw his third interception of the year, he bounced back nicely with points in eight of the next nine drives.

Williams has been carrying the Trojans for most of the season with his ability to create big plays out of near-sacks. The fact that he did so again at the Rose Bowl with many eyes on him will only further his case to become the latest Lincoln Riley quarterback to hold up the prestigious trophy next month.

Just as relevant, Williams’ competition also took a step backward over the weekend. Michigan running back Blake Corum left with an injury in a narrow win over Illinois, and Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker suffered what looked to be a serious non-contact knee injury in a blowout loss to South Carolina. Ohio State signal-caller C.J. Stroud was just 18-of-30 for 241 yards and a touchdown to boot. 

Throw in another marquee opponent in Notre Dame next week at the Coliseum that will draw in national attention, plus a Pac-12 championship game appearance after that, and the world’s most famous stiff arm might find itself back at Heritage Hall before too long if Williams keeps this up.

WATCH: Caleb Williams finds Jordan Addison

USC’s Caleb Williams found Jordan Addison for the 35-yard touchdown to take the lead over the UCLA Bruins on Saturday.

DTR Battles 

Last year against USC, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was pretty much unstoppable. He scored on nearly every drive while leading the Bruins to their most points in series history and tied for the most ever put up on a cardinal and gold defense. 

Thompson-Robinson wasn’t quite the superman character he was in 2021 on Senior Day at the Rose Bowl, but he did put forth a performance that underscored that he’ll be beloved for many decades to come by the faithful in powder blue, throwing for 282 yards and gutting out six total touchdowns (four passing, two rushing). He did so with his thumb heavily wrapped and his normally dependable offensive line allowing a ton of pressure as the game wore on. 

On top of throwing a few darts for quick scores, DTR’s most memorable play of the game might have come when he dropped a snap in the fourth quarter but ended up scrambling for a first down to keep a drive alive. UCLA ended up capping the eight-play, 85-yard march with a Michael Ezeike touchdown diving past the pylon to keep the team in the game when they were on the verge of potentially going down three scores. 

Thompson-Robinson did account for a trio of turnovers in the game (two bad interceptions in the first half and a tough fumble that led to points the other way) but kept coming up with remarkable play after remarkable play to keep his team in the ballgame. 

There may be other UCLA players with better stats or more meaningful wins, but few were able to put their heart and soul into turning around the team more than what the senior signal-caller has done the past few years. Saturday night’s effort was just the latest example of that.

Korey Foreman’s interception ices game for USC

USC’s Korey Foreman intercepted Dorian Thompson-Robinson to secure the Trojans’ 48-45 victory over the UCLA Bruins and clinch a spot in the Pac-12 title game.

CFP Implications

Coming into the day, Saturday had all the makings of a lackluster one from the slate on hand. There were only a handful of ranked-vs.-ranked matchups and even fewer marquee contests on the docket. 

Yet, in ways college football always seems to find ways to do, chaos arrived from coast-to-coast to upend the playoff picture and nearly come close to tossing the sport into full-blown bedlam. TCU needed a last-second field goal to remain undefeated, Ohio State and Michigan both escaped tough Big Ten tests in the fourth quarter, North Carolina blew a three-score lead in losing to Georgia Tech, while Tennessee lost any hope of making it to the final four by getting trucked by South Carolina.

All of which left USC and Clemson in prime position to take advantage of it all as the remaining one-loss teams who were also set to play for their respective conference titles. This was particularly notable for the Trojans in carrying the Pac-12 banner, as the league looks to finally land a team in the postseason tournament for the first time since Washington’s 2016 foray.

The Vols’ loss will ensure the Trojans will get bumped up at least one spot in Tuesday’s Selection Committee rankings, and the team will also be able to take advantage of Ohio State-Michigan and LSUGeorgia all playing each other before Selection Sunday rolls around.

For a while there, it looked as though the Pac-12 would once again trip itself up when it came to the playoff race as teams beat up on each other. Now, thanks to a victory over the Bruins, the path is extremely clear for a 12-1 conference champion USC to make it into the field. 

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Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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