Nov 19, 2022; Pasadena, California, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) throws against the UCLA Bruins during the first half at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

CFP berth, Heisman could be on line as No. 6 USC faces No. 15 Irish

Sixth-ranked Southern California looks to close out its best regular season since 2008 and stay alive for the College Football Playoff when it hosts No. 15 Notre Dame on Saturday in Los Angeles.

The Trojans (10-1) capped their Pac-12 Conference slate with a dramatic, 48-45 win at crosstown rival UCLA last Saturday. The back-and-forth contest likely bolstered the Heisman Trophy candidacy of USC quarterback Caleb Williams, who finished with more than 500 total yards in the win.

Williams heads into the final regular-season week ranked sixth in the nation in total passing yards (3,480) and tied for fourth in passing touchdowns (33) while having been intercepted just three times.

His 345.1 yards of total offense per game ranks fourth nationally. Statistics alone do not tell the full story of Williams’ importance to USC’s success, however, which Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman touched upon in his weekly press conference.

“He’s one of the few guys I’ve seen continuously break tackles,” Freeman said. “Guys have their hands on him and he continues to stay up. That can be devastating to a defense. That can make you try to do something outside of what your responsibility is on defense — ‘I want to make a play and I’m going try to rush around this guy instead of staying on him.’

“You have to stay in the rush lanes, but you can’t play cautious.”

The Fighting Irish (8-3) have surged on the back half of the schedule thanks primarily to their defense.

After opening the season 0-2, which included a confounding home loss to Marshall, then falling against a down Stanford team on Oct. 15, Notre Dame has mounted a five-game winning streak that includes a 35-14 rout of Clemson on Nov. 5.

The Fighting Irish defense is holding opponents to 20.2 points per game, tied for No. 27 in the nation, and has been especially good against the pass. Opponents have thrown for 186.8 yards per game against Notre Dame (16th in the nation) and have just 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions.

Although exactly even in the turnover battle on the season, the Fighting Irish are a combined plus-7 over the past four games. They may need to continue that trend against the nation’s best team in regard to turnover margin.

At a whopping plus-21 for the season — including plus-3 last week at UCLA — the Trojans have a season-long margin that is seven better than the next-most productive team (Duke at plus-14).

USC can expect a challenge to that turnover success, particularly trying to move the ball on a Notre Dame defense yet to allow an opponent 400 yards of offense in a game this season.

Trojans coach Lincoln Riley said, “They’ve got good players at all levels. You can tell they’ve recruited there for many years and they’ve built a talent base. I don’t see a ton of weaknesses with that group. They’ve got guys who can rush the passer, they play well in the secondary. … The margins are thin with a group like that.”

–Field Level Media

Oct 15, 2022; Gainesville, Florida, USA; LSU Tigers wide receiver Kayshon Boutte (7) and head coach Brian Kelly celebrate after they beat the Florida Gators  at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

LSU up to No. 5 as CFP rankings’ top four remain unchanged

Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and TCU occupied the first four positions of the College Football Playoff rankings for the third straight week, with two-loss LSU claiming the No. 5 spot in the newest edition of the rankings Tuesday.

LSU and Southern California each moved up one spot to Nos. 5 and 6, respectively. Alabama, Clemson, Oregon and Tennessee rounded out the top 10. Tennessee dropped five spots after its surprise 63-38 loss to South Carolina that featured a torn ACL to the Vols’ Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, Hendon Hooker.

USC beat then-No. 16 UCLA in a 48-45 thriller Saturday, improving the Trojans’ record to 10-1.

USC’s only loss came in October on the road at Utah, currently ranked No. 14, 43-42. But LSU (9-2) has wins over Ole Miss and Alabama, which were ranked in the top seven nationally at the times of the games.

“There’s reasons for USC to be at 5. There’s reasons for LSU to be at 5,” CFP chairman Boo Corrigan said in an ESPN interview. “As we looked at it, (LSU’s) wins over Alabama and Mississippi carried the day more so than (USC’s) wins over UCLA and Oregon State. … The good win that (USC) had on Saturday was 48-45. I think some of the members of the committee, as we looked at it, wanted to see a little bit more from their defense, as well as the overall strength of schedule from LSU.”

Each top-four team stayed in place after a nail-biting week. Georgia went on the road and beat Kentucky 16-6; Ohio State rallied from a halftime deficit to top Maryland 43-30; and Michigan and TCU needed last-second field goals to beat Illinois and Baylor, respectively.

Second-ranked Ohio State hosts No. 3 Michigan on Saturday.

The quartet are the only four unbeaten teams left in FBS.

1. Georgia
2. Ohio State
3. Michigan
4. TCU
5. LSU
6. Southern California
7. Alabama
8. Clemson
9. Oregon
10. Tennessee
11. Penn State
12. Kansas State
13. Washington
14. Utah
15. Notre Dame
16. Florida State
17. North Carolina
18. UCLA
19. Tulane
20. Ole Miss
21. Oregon State
22. UCF
23. Texas
24. Cincinnati
25. Louisville

–Field Level Media

Nov 19, 2022; Pasadena, California, USA; Southern California Trojans running back Darwin Barlow (22) celebrates his touchdown scored against the UCLA Bruins with offensive lineman Bobby Haskins (70) during the second half at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

USC lands in Top 5 of AP poll; Georgia, Ohio State still 1-2

Welcome back to the club, Southern California.

The Trojans reached No. 5 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll, released Sunday, marking their first appearance in the Top 5 since hitting No. 4 in September 2017. They jumped two spots after an epic 48-45 victory over crosstown rival UCLA on Saturday night.

The top four remained unchanged, with Georgia receiving 62 of 63 first-place votes to stay atop the poll. No. 2 Ohio State earned the other first-place vote and was followed by Michigan and TCU. All four programs are 11-0, but Michigan and TCU both needed last-minute field goals to stay undefeated.

Following USC were LSU, Clemson, Alabama, Tennessee and Oregon to round out the Top 10.

Tennessee dropped four spots after Saturday’s stunning 63-38 loss to South Carolina, in which the Gamecocks scored the most points by an unranked team against a Top 5 team in the history of the poll, according to the Associated Press.

The Volunteers weren’t alone with their precipitous fall.

With losses Saturday, UCF plunged eight spots to No. 25. Ole Miss slipped six spots to No. 20 and North Carolina fell five places to 18.

The week’s big climbers were Notre Dame, up five slots to No. 13, as well as two teams that rose four spots — Kansas State (No. 15) and Florida State (No. 16).

Out of the poll this week was Oklahoma State, replaced by Big 12 rival Texas at No. 24.

–Field Level Media

Nov 19, 2022; Pasadena, California, USA; Southern California Trojans running back Austin Jones (6) celebrates his touchdown scored against the UCLA Bruins with wide receiver Tahj Washington (16) and wide receiver Michael Jackson III (9) during the first half at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Late interception clinches USC win over UCLA, trip to title game

Korey Foreman’s interception of Dorian Thompson-Robinson with 1:25 remaining preserved No. 7-ranked USC’s 48-45, road win over rival and No. 16 UCLA Saturday in Pasadena, California, and preserved the Trojans’ College Football Playoff aspirations.

USC (10-1, 8-1 Pac-12 Conference) gave up three consecutive UCLA touchdowns over the late third quarter and into the fourth. Laiatu Latu delivered a critical third-down sack, forcing the Trojans’ first punt of the game and giving the Bruins possession again.

UCLA (8-3, 5-3) was driving when Thompson-Robinson found Jake Bobo for a 27-yard gain, part of Bobo’s team-high 76 yards receiving.

On the next play, Foreman stepped in front of Thompson-Robinson’s pass attempt up the middle for USC’s third interception of the UCLA quarterback, to get the critical stop.

With the win, USC sewed up a berth in the Dec. 2 Pac-12 Championship Game. The Trojans close the regular season hosting nonconference rival Notre Dame.

Thompson-Robinson completed 23-of-38 pass attempts for 309 yards with four touchdown passes — three to tight end Michael Ezeike — and rushed for another 81 yards with two touchdowns.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams outdueled him, setting a career-high with 470 yards on 32-of-43 passing. Jordan Addison caught 11 passes for 178 yards with a touchdown, and Kyle Ford hauled in Williams’ other touchdown pass.

Williams added another 33 yards with a touchdown on the ground, while Austin Jones — starting in place of the injured Travis Dye – ran for 120 yards on 21 carries with two touchdowns.

UCLA (8-3, 5-3) jumped ahead 14-0, capitalizing on a pair of early USC misfires deep in Bruins territory. The Trojans had three trips into the UCLA red zone that failed to net any points.

The Bruins, meanwhile, went 4-of-4 on red-zone attempts. UCLA’s inability to slow the USC offense, which gained 649 total yards, made the difference. The Bruins gained 507 yards.

–Field Level Media

Nov 12, 2022; Pasadena, California, USA;  UCLA Bruins head coach Chip Kelly calls a play in the second half against the Arizona Wildcats at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

No. 16 UCLA aims for improved Pac-12 standing vs. No. 7 USC

College Football Playoff stakes may be off the table when rivals Southern California and UCLA meet Saturday in Pasadena, Calif.

The No. 16-ranked Bruins still have Pac-12 Conference championship aspirations when they host the No. 7 Trojans.

UCLA (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12) stumbled out of realistic playoff contention with its 34-28 loss to Arizona last week. The Bruins surrendered 315 passing yards to Wildcats quarterback Jayden de Laura.

The task remains difficult this week when the Bruins face Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams. The Oklahoma transfer immediately thrust himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation at the beginning of the season and has not relented en route to recording 3,010 passing yards with 31 touchdowns, and another 283 yards on the ground and six rushing scores.

Despite Williams’ ability to turn broken plays into positive gains, UCLA coach Chip Kelly said defending the USC quarterback requires a different approach than against de Laura.

“They’re two different people. You don’t compare Caleb to Jayden,” Kelly said at Monday’s media availability. “(USC coach Lincoln Riley) runs a different scheme than (the one Arizona coach Jedd Fisch) runs, so our sole focus now is … (out defense) for what we’re going to do against USC.”

Slowing USC has been a difficult proposition for most opponents this season.

USC (9-1, 7-1) ranks third in the nation at 42.4 points per game. Despite a sluggish start against struggling Colorado last Friday in which their only points in the first quarter came on defense with a sack for a safety, the Trojans got it in gear to cruise to a 55-17 victory.

The 55 points were USC’s most since scoring 66 against Rice in the season opener and marked the Trojans’ fourth consecutive contest scoring at least 41 points.

Despite its offensive proficiency over that stretch, last week’s blowout was the first in USC’s last four games decided by more than a single-possession point margin. The Trojans dropped a 43-42 loss Oct. 15 at Utah for their only loss of the season, kept Arizona at bay in a 45-37 shootout on Oct. 29, and survived a late Cal rally in a 41-35 decision on Nov. 5.

Continuing to successfully navigate a narrow margin for error has USC in contention for both its third Pac-12 Championship Game appearance in six seasons, and the Trojans’ first-ever berth in the Playoff.

USC boasts its best record at this juncture in the season since 2008. Maintaining its current pace depends in part on limiting UCLA’s own prolific offense and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

“He was impressive from the jump. He really was,” said Riley, who faced Thompson-Robinson in 2018 and 2019 while the head coach at Oklahoma.

“You could tell he had some real ability there at a young age. … A talented player like him and being coached by the guys that are coaching him, it’s no surprise that he has (improved).”

Thompson-Robinson passed for 349 yards with four touchdowns and rushed for another two scores in UCLA’s 62-33 win at USC last season.

A win on Saturday would keep alive the Bruins’ hope of appearing in their first Pac-12 Championship since 2012.

–Field Level Media

Nov 11, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans running back Travis Dye (26) is taken off the field after suffering an apparent injury against the Colorado Buffaloes during the first half at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Trojans RB Travis Dye (leg) likely done for season

Southern California running back Travis Dye is likely to miss the rest of the season with a leg injury sustained during the eighth-ranked Trojans’ win against Colorado on Friday night.

Dye left the field on a cart in the second quarter of USC’s 55-17 victory after his left leg got twisted underneath him while being tackled.

The entire Trojans team crowded around Dye as he was placed in an air cast before being lifted onto the cart and taken to the locker room.

“It’s tough,” head coach Lincoln Riley said after the game. “It shook us all a little bit. He’s such an emotional leader. It sucks. No other way to put it.”

Including 26 yards gained Friday before the injury, Dye has rushed for 884 yards with nine touchdowns in 10 games in his first year with the Trojans.

Dye, a Los Angeles-area native, transferred to USC in January from Oregon after rushing for 3,111 yards in 48 games for the Ducks with 21 touchdowns going back to 2018. He also had 83 receptions for 869 yards with eight TDs at Oregon.

–Field Level Media

Nov 11, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) throws against the Colorado Buffaloes during the first half at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Caleb Williams’ 5 TDs power No. 8 USC past Colorado

Behind three touchdowns passing and two rushing from quarterback Caleb Williams, eighth-ranked USC overcame a sluggish start Friday against Pac-12 Conference counterpart Colorado, remaining perfect all-time against the Buffaloes with a 55-17 rout in Los Angeles.

The Trojans (9-1, 7-1 Pac-12) improved to 16-0 all-time against Colorado and continued their best start since the 2008 season — but endured a rocky start to get there.

USC’s offense — which began the night averaging 41 points per game and more than 10 points in opening quarters — was shut out in the first period on Friday.

The Trojans’ lone points came when Tuli Tuipulotu and Tyrone Taleni sacked Colorado quarterback J.T. Shrout in the end zone, effectively nullifying a Buffaloes’ interception of Williams. Nikko Reed’s pick accounted for just the second interception Williams has thrown all season.

Colorado (1-9, 1-6) led 3-2 going into the second quarter thanks to a 28-yard field goal by Cole Becker, the culmination of a 12-play, 72-yard drive that included a fourth-down conversion and a 37-yard Alex Fontenot run.

USC then seized control in the second quarter.

Williams rushed for a pair of touchdowns in the period, both on cleverly executed run-pass option keepers, and hooked up with former Buffaloes player Brenden Rice on a 32-yard scoring pass. The Trojans deluged Colorado with 24 points in the quarter to put the game away by halftime.

The period was not all good for USC, however. Running back Travis Dye — second in the Pac-12 in rushing heading into Week 11 — was carted off the field minutes before halftime with an apparent leg injury. He returned to the sidelines on crutches in the third quarter.

Filling in for Dye, Austin Jones rushed for 74 yards on 11 carries and scored a third-quarter touchdown on a 12-yard pass from Williams.

Jones’ score put an exclamation point on the win after Tahj Washington quashed any hope of Colorado comeback. The Buffaloes showed some life, pulling to within 26-10 on Fontenot’s 3-yard touchdown run shortly after halftime, but Washington broke a 61-yard scoring reception less than a minute later to slam the door.

Williams finished 14-of-26 for 268 yards. Fontenot led all ball-carriers with 108 yards on 20 attempts.

–Field Level Media

Nov 5, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA;  USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) looks to a pass during the second quarter against the California Golden Bears at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

No. 8 USC looks to remain perfect in all-time series with Colorado

Matching its best start since the 2008 season, No. 8 USC looks to remain in the conversation for the College Football Playoff when it hosts Pac-12 Conference counterpart Colorado on Friday in Los Angeles.

The Trojans (8-1, 6-1 Pac-12) rode quarterback Caleb Williams’ five total touchdowns — four passing and one rushing — and an early cushion to overcome defensive miscues in a 41-35 defeat of Cal last week.

The win marked USC’s third consecutive game scoring at least 41 points, bumping its season average to 41 points per game — seventh-best in the nation — but was also the Trojans’ third straight contest yielding at least 35 points.

USC gave up 43 points in a one-point loss at Utah on Oct. 15, and 37 in an eight-point win Oct. 29 at Arizona.

“We do a lot of great things, a lot of the time. It’s just about doing it every single play,” Trojans linebacker Shane Lee said during Tuesday’s media availability. “(Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch) always challenges us to look at ourselves and see what we can do better … That’s what you have to do if you want to get better and be a part of team: Be critical of yourself.”

The USC defense has excelled at generating turnovers, boasting 18 through nine games. Coupled with Williams’ savvy play at quarterback — he has thrown 28 touchdown passes against one interception — the Trojans enjoy the nation’s best turnover margin at plus-16 for the season.

Colorado (1-8, 1-5) will try to jump-start its struggling offense, which ranks worst among all Power Five-conference teams and ahead of only Colorado State and Massachusetts in FBS scoring averages.

The Buffs are producing 15.6 points per game, backsliding after a promising, 34-point effort in an Oct. 29 loss to Arizona State. Colorado managed 10 points in a 39-point loss to Oregon last week.

The Buffs have never beaten USC in program history, a streak encompassing 15 games and dating back to 1927. Since Colorado joined the Pac-12 in 2011, the Trojans have won the 10 meetings by an average of 17.4 points per game — though three of the last six were decided by four points or fewer.

Colorado running back Anthony Hankerson told the Daily Camera that USC is a “good team, but they suit up pads just like us.”

“They bleed just like how we bleed and it’s football,” Hankerson said. “Anybody could win and you don’t have to be the best team, but as long as you’re the best team that day when you play, you’re good.”

The Buffs will have to avoid giving up possessions to have hope of an upset. Their 18 giveaways rank Colorado among the most turnover-prone teams in the country.

J.T. Shrout — Colorado’s season-opener at starting quarterback but sidelined in conference games against UCLA and Arizona while freshman Owen McCown started — captained the Buffs down the stretch of their lone win, Oct. 22 in overtime against Cal.

For the season, however, Shrout has thrown as many interceptions as touchdowns with six each.

–Field Level Media

Oct 15, 2022; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) breaks a tackle by Utah Utes defensive tackle Junior Tafuna (58) in the second quarter at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Caleb Williams guides No. 9 USC into next conference battle vs. Cal

Ranked No. 9 in the initial College Football Playoff poll, Southern California is home in Los Angeles on Saturday to continue its pursuit of a Pac-12 Conference title when it hosts Cal.

The Trojans (7-1, 5-1 Pac-12), playing in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the first time since Oct. 8, outgunned Arizona in a wild 45-37 win last week.
The high-scoring affair was USC’s second in as many contests. A 43-42 loss Oct. 15 at Utah and the Oct. 29 trip to Arizona bookended the Trojans’ bye week.

Quarterback Caleb Williams bolstered his Heisman Trophy case with 411 yards on 31-of-45 passing and five touchdowns, all with primary receiving target Jordan Addison sidelined due to a knee injury sustained at Utah.

Tahj Washington and Kyle Ford picked up the slack with Washington’s seven catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns, and Ford’s six grabs for 114 yards and a score.

“If you kind of look at how the targets were spaced out, a lot of guys got opportunities and obviously, a lot of them stepped up,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said on Tuesday. “It was a good lesson for him (Williams) of regardless who’s in: An offensive system runs best when it’s going where it needs to go.”

Cal (3-5, 1-4) understands what’s coming. The Bears know they stand out for failing to defend the pass with one of the nation’s most prolific attacks up this week. The Golden Bears rank No. 126 nationally and last in the Pac-12 with 292.3 yards allowed through the air per game.

Last week, Cal gave up 412 passing yards to Oregon’s Bo Nix.

“(Williams) is a unique talent; his ability to throw the ball, be accurate with it,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said during his Tuesday media availability. “And then he’s a really strong individual. He’s got great instincts. When it’s time for him to run or move in the pocket or buy time, he’s really adept at that.”

Finding ways to limit USC’s 41-ppg offense, which ranks tied for eighth in the nation, should be critical to the upset chances of a Cal team that has not played like it is built to win a shootout.

Since going 3-1 in the first month, a stretch capped with a season-high 49 points scored in a win over Arizona, Cal has dropped four straight. The Golden Bears have not scored more than 24 points in any of the four defeats.

Reserve quarterback Kai Millner boosted the offense last week against Oregon, going 8-of-11 passing for 114 yards with two touchdowns. His performance came primarily against Ducks back-ups, however, well after the outcome was in hand.

Wilcox was steadfast in the postgame press conference that Jack Plummer would remain the starting quarterback.

Plummer is completing 61.2 percent of his pass attempts on the season and has accrued almost 2,000 yards through the air, and has a solid 13 touchdowns against only five interceptions.

Establishing a consistent rushing attack to complement the passing game has proven more difficult. Cal is tied for 106th nationally in rushing offense at 113.4 yards per game on only 3.8 yards per carry.

The USC defense has not been great against the run, allowing 4.7 yards per carry and more than 152 yards per game. But boasting the Pac-12’s most prolific sacking defense with 26 through eight games reflects the Trojans’ ability to get into the opponent’s backfield.

–Field Level Media

Oct 29, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; USC Trojans wide receiver Kyle Ford (81) is unable to get his feet down for a catch against Arizona Wildcats cornerback Ephesians Prysock (7) during the first half at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Caleb Williams throws 5 TDs as No. 10 USC defeats Arizona

Sophomore Caleb Williams passed for a career-high 411 yards and five touchdowns without his top two receivers as No. 10 Southern California held off Arizona 45-37 on Saturday night in Tucson, Ariz.

The Trojans (7-1, 5-1 Pac-12), played without receivers Jordan Addison (injury) and Mario Williams (unknown), but Tahj Washington (seven catches, 118 yards, two touchdowns) and Kyle Ford (six catches, 114 yards, one TD) helped keep the passing game on track.

Arizona (3-5, 1-4) mostly kept pace but punted after USC took a 38-29 lead with 13:38 to go. The Trojans gave themselves breathing room with an 83-yard drive, capped by Travis Dye’s 2-yard leap into the end zone to make it 45-29 at the 6:24 mark.

The Wildcats climbed within 45-37 with a touchdown and two-point conversion with 1:26 to go, but USC recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock with the help of a conversion on fourth-and-1.

Williams completed 31 of 45 passes without an interception as USC rolled to 621 total yards. Dye finished with 113 yards on 20 carries.

Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura completed 26 of 43 passes for 380 yards. Dorian Singer was on the receiving end of all three of de Laura’s touchdown passes, finishing with seven catches for 141 yards.

USC was protecting a 24-16 lead in the third quarter when Bryson Shaw picked off de Laura. One play later, Williams found Washington for a 47-yard touchdown and a 31-16 edge.

Arizona stormed back with two touchdowns in less than four minutes, including a 10-yard run by Michael Wiley with 1:42 left in the third quarter. A two-point conversion failed, leaving Arizona behind 31-29.

USC, which also played without left guard Andrew Vorhees and linebackers Eric Gentry and Ralen Goforth due to injury, beat Arizona for the 10th consecutive time.

The first half ended in controversy, when USC drove to the Arizona 10 with five seconds left, looking to spike the ball to stop the clock. But the clock re-started before the ball was spotted, and time expired before the snap. USC coach Lincoln Riley was livid, but officials stuck with the decision that the half was over with the Trojans up 17-13.

–Field Level Media