By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Caleb Willams polished his Heisman Trophy credentials with 232 yards passing and four total touchdowns, and No. 5 Southern California capped its outstanding regular season under new coach Lincoln Riley by staying firmly in the College Football Playoff race with a 38-27 victory over No. 13 Notre Dame on Saturday night.
Tahj Washington caught an early TD pass from Williams while USC (11-1, No. 6 CFP) snapped its four-game losing streak in its famed intersectional rivalry with the Fighting Irish (8-4, No. 15 CFP).
The night felt like a Heisman coronation for Williams, who iced the win on his third rushing touchdown with 2:35 to play by sprinting 16 yards through the heart of the Notre Dame defense for the 44th total TD of his incredible season. Williams struck a Heisman pose on the USC sideline after a score in the first half, and he was serenaded with frequent chants of “Heisman! Heisman!” from the Coliseum crowd.
Although USC is headed to Pac-12 title game in Las Vegas on Friday, the revitalized Trojans first kept their CFP hopes intact with this victory — and even got a boost from LSU’s loss to Texas A&M during this game. USC became the first team to gain 400 yards and to score more than 32 points this season against the Irish while completing its first 11-win regular season since 2008.
Drew Pyne passed for 318 yards and hit Michael Mayer for two of his three TDs for the Irish, whose five-game winning streak ended in their regular-season finale under new coach Marcus Freeman. Pyne completed his first 15 throws into the fourth quarter, but he ultimately couldn’t keep up with Williams, and the Irish surrendered the Jeweled Shillelagh in their first trip to the Coliseum since 2018.
The 93rd edition of this rivalry was a showcase for Williams, the sophomore who followed Riley from Oklahoma to USC last winter and quickly reached his extraordinary potential on the West Coast. With a pocket elusiveness that had Notre Dame’s defense embracing air and a lively arm at nearly any distance, Williams set single-season records for quarterbacks in total touchdowns and yards rushing at a school rich in talent at the position.
After repeatedly eluding the Notre Dame defense on USC’s final drive of the first half, Williams rushed for a 5-yard TD up the middle on a perfect run-pass option. When the quarterback reached the USC sideline, he smilingly struck a Heisman pose to his teammates.
Williams added another TD run on the first snap of the fourth quarter, and he punctuated it by blowing kisses to the USC student section.
Austin Jones rushed for a career-high 154 yards as USC never trailed, but never pulled away from the tenacious Irish.
Washington’s 11-yard catch-and-run TD capped USC’s opening drive, and the Trojans got to the Notre Dame 2 on their second drive before Williams was flagged for offensive pass interference during a failed attempt at a Philly Special.
After Williams unleashed a 58-yard punt on a fourth-down trick play, the Irish got on the board midway through the second quarter with Pyne’s 22-yard TD throw to Mayer, Notre Dame’s vaunted tight end.
After Pyne fumbled in USC territory on Notre Dame’s first drive after halftime, Williams led a 74-yard drive capped by Raleek Brown’s untouched TD run for a 24-7 lead.
Deion Colzie and Logan Diggs scored later in the second half, but Williams kept the Trojans in front until Calen Bullock made his fifth interception of the season for USC with 4:56 to play, boosting the Trojans’ turnover margin to an astronomical plus-23.
Notre Dame: The Irish ultimately couldn’t stop Williams, but that’s hardly a unique predicament this season. After a rocky start, Freeman’s debut season ultimately offers much more hope than concern.
USC: Williams’ brilliance is the main reason for the Trojans’ turnaround, considering the defense gave up 408 yards and again had trouble getting off the field against an elite opponent. Yet USC repeatedly has done enough to win, with its only blemish a one-point road loss to Utah. The Trojans have proved they’re playoff-worthy if the numbers work out for them.
Notre Dame: A mid-tier bowl game.
USC: A quick trip to Las Vegas on Friday to play for the Trojans’ second conference title in 14 seasons.
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