After so much had gone so miserably awry, from the sleepy offense and sloppy defense to the errant throws and missed tackles, it felt almost too simple that it would end like this for USC. Just a 25-yard field goal to erase the disastrous results that came before it. A routine kick to end a Saturday night that was anything but routine.
Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. Nothing had been for the Trojans Saturday. It would take three more nail-biting overtimes, two more thwarted conversions from its defense and one last bit of hero ball from its star quarterback for No. 9 USC to finally dispatch Arizona 43-41 during a madcap matchup befitting the farewell tour of #Pac12AfterDark.
But before all that chaos came the high snap — too high at least for USC holder Will Rose to snag and place with the final seconds of regulation ticking away. The two plays prior had given the Trojans good chances to score from the 6-yard line, but both had also gone poorly, leaving it up to kicker Denis Lynch and Rose, whose task would prove impossible from his kneeling position.
Lynch’s desperation kick ultimately went nowhere, a late gut punch on a night full of them. Fortunately for USC (6-0, 4-0 Pac-12), it was followed by three overtimes.
Not that Arizona (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) would go quietly. The Wildcats’ first touchdown of overtime took all of one play. Their next drive resulted in a fourth score for wideout Jacob Cowing.
Each time Arizona swung, USC held steady, its faith still strong on the shoulders of quarterback Caleb Williams.
Nothing about his performance early Saturday suggested that Williams would save the day. By Williams’ stellar standards, his showing ranked among his worst at USC. His throws sailed off target and he often seemed shaken in a collapsing pocket. His passing numbers were pedestrian: 14 of 25 for 205 yards and one touchdown.
All the while, Williams said, he tried to be patient.
“They did a great job throughout the whole game, just trying to get in my head, trying to hit me after whistles, when the ball is away from me,” Williams said. “Keep fighting, keep believing, that’s what you do as a leader.”
With the game on the line in overtime, Williams put the Trojans on his back, like he so often has, willing USC to a win. He ran for one touchdown, his third of the night, then set up another with a second-and-19 conversion.
USC starting rush end Solomon Byrd is juggling a lot this season. The Wyoming transfer worked to get up to speed and is helping to lead USC’s defense.
As he stood at the 2-yard line, at the start of the third overtime, Riley put the ball in Williams’ hands to secure the win. USC’s entire offensive line shifted to the left to confuse Arizona’s defense, leaving the quarterback with just a few receivers around him.
It was all Williams needed, even as two of those receivers fittingly tripped each other as the two-point conversion attempt unfolded. The Trojan quarterback took off to his right, sprinting as hard as he could toward the pylon. He made it just in time, reaching out as far as he could to break the plane.
“When we needed him, he came through,” Tahj Washington said of Williams.
The same could be said of USC’s defense, even if both had played a part in letting the game get out of hand in the first place. The Trojans allowed just 11 points in the second half, settling somewhat after a sloppy start that saw them spot Arizona 17 points, all before USC’s own offense earned a first down.
“We certainly had a lot of moments where we didn’t play very well, but our team’s fight and resolve to come back and win that, with some of the craziness that happened in that game, I’m really proud,” Riley said. “A lot of teams don’t win that game. You go down 17 to nothing and you don’t recover.”
But when that hole was its deepest, USC’s defense started the climb out in the second quarter, as cornerback Jacobe Covington jumped a route for his first interception, sending the USC sideline into a frenzy.
“That’s what allowed us to get back in it,” Riley said. “That energized the entire team.”
Still, it took a serious climb for the defense to find itself in a position to ice the game with just one stop in triple-overtime. As Arizona tried a toss play to the left, linebacker Mason Cobb saw a lane. He burst through untouched to stop running back DJ Williams, saving USC from potential crushing loss.
Plenty more landmines line the path between here and a potential College Football Playoff semifinal berth, beginning next Saturday in South Bend. But after a dizzying edition of #Pac12AfterDark Saturday and narrow escape from certain disaster, USC remained 6-0 and unscathed.
Though, as Riley noted after, he could use an ibuprofen or two.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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