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‘The most difficult QB to sack’: What makes Heisman favorite Caleb Williams so slippery?

Utes will have their hands full containing Williams when they meet Friday in the Pac-12 title game

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USC quarterback Caleb Williams escapes the grasp of Utah’s Miki Suguturaga in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams escapes the grasp of Utah’s Miki Suguturaga in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. The Heisman Trophy front-runner is sneaky slippery in the pocket.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

USC quarterback Caleb Williams does not lack confidence.

And the 6-foot-1, 215-pound sophomore has backed it up with his play. 

This season, he’s completed 268 of 407 passes for 3,712 yards with 34 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He’s also rushed 97 times for 351 yards and 10 touchdowns. 

“He can beat you in so many ways. Boy, he’s special. I’m glad he’s our quarterback.” — USC coach Lincoln Riley on Caleb Williams

More importantly, he’s led the Trojans to 11 wins, a No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings and an appearance in the Pac-12 championship game Friday (6 p.m. MST, Fox) against No. 11 Utah at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. 

And in a win over Notre Dame Saturday, Williams made his Heisman Trophy statement, running all over the field, completing passes and shredding the Fighting Irish defense. 

“He was awesome tonight, his escapability, his playmaking ability,” coach Lincoln Riley said after that game. “He can beat you in so many ways. Boy, he’s special. I’m glad he’s our quarterback.”

Riley coached a pair of Heisman Trophy winners at Oklahoma — Baker Mayfield (2017) and Kyler Murray (2018).

After Williams, an Oklahoma transfer that followed Riley to USC, scored his first touchdown against Notre Dame, Williams returned to the sideline and struck the Heisman pose. 

“I honestly struck it because a bunch of my teammates were saying to do it,” he said. “I normally don’t. After I score, I normally don’t do anything.”

Since he was a kid, Williams has dreamed of winning the Heisman Trophy. He can strengthen his Heisman candidacy — he would be the eighth USC player all time to win a Heisman — with a standout performance against the Utes and leave voters with a lasting impression. 

“It’s been a goal of mine because I think I’m the best and it’s one of those trophies that kind of represents that. When I was younger, it was on my mind more than now,” Williams said. “Since I’ve been in college, I still think I’m the best player. I thought that last year when I was playing. I thought it before I came into college. But I haven’t been necessarily focused on that in college. It’s been more of, I want to go to the playoffs. I want to go win championships with the team that I’m on.”

Williams is also a finalist for the Maxwell Award, emblematic of the nation’s top quarterback. 

Despite all the Heisman hype surrounding Williams, he’s focused on the bigger picture —team awards more than individual awards. With a win, USC would advance to the CFP with a chance to compete for the national championship.

“I’m still trying to lead these guys,” he said. “We have bigger goals in mind toward the end of the season.” 

In Utah’s 43-42 victory over USC in October, Williams completed 25 of 42 passes for 381 yards and five touchdowns. 

Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said Williams is even better now than he was then. 

“He’s been great every game,” he said. “Show me a game where he’s not great. I would say yes. He keeps getting better and better.”

Whittingham heaped a lot of praise on Williams. 

“He may be the most difficult quarterback to sack that we’ve ever come across that is also a great throwing threat. We’ve played some athletic quarterbacks that were really like a wide receiver playing QB or whatever,” he said. “But as far as a true QB, nobody’s harder to sack than that guy.

“He keeps the plays alive. He extends the plays and keeps his eyes downfield incredibly well during the scrambles. He very rarely glances at the rush,” Whittingham continued. “He’s always seeing it peripherally. It seems like he has eyes in the back of his head. Some of the escapes that he has are just fantastic. And he’s only 20 years old, second year out of high school. A true sophomore. So what he’s doing is very impressive. The odds-on favorite to win the Heisman I guess, is what we’re hearing nationally.”

USC quarterback Caleb Williams spins away from Utah defensive end Jonah Elliss (83) at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams spins away from Utah defensive end Jonah Elliss at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. Containing Williams will be a top priority for Utah’s defense in Friday’s Pac-12 championship game.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Can Utah’s defense dampen Williams’ Heisman hopes? Or will he have another Heisman moment at the Utes’ expense?

This is what The Athletic had to say this week about Williams: “There has been a long line of illustrious quarterbacks who have suited up for USC. None have accounted for as many touchdowns in a single season as Williams, who’s posted 44 this season.

“He’s thrown for 3,712 yards, rushed for 351 and has a Trojans team that doesn’t look like a typical playoff contender just one win away from a Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff bid. And he’s played his best as the stakes have risen for USC late in the season.”

Notre Dame linebacker JD Bertrand acknowledged after Saturday’s loss that they failed to contain Williams. And he explained, in great detail, why that was. 

“You guys saw his ability to extend plays. That was one of the biggest things — his ability to keep the play alive even though it really should be a dead play. To escape the pocket and still keep it going, it led to those extra pass yards and it led to him getting explosive runs. That was one of the biggest things we needed to stop and that we didn’t do,” he said. “He’s freaky athletic. It shows, obviously.

“The biggest thing as we bring pressure up the middle, we need to make sure we keep our edges going up field,” he added. “As we get through up the middle, when he spins back, we need to make sure we’re staying vertical to keep him contained. That was one of the biggest problems we had.” 

Nationally, USC’s offense ranks No. 3 in scoring offense (42.5 points per game), No. 5 in total offense (506.6 yards per game), No. 6 in passing (322.6 yards per game) and No. 1 in turnover margin. The Trojans have given up just four turnovers all season. 

The Utes have played against a bunch of talented quarterbacks this season. But Williams stands alone. 

“He’s just a playmaker. At the end of the day, he can make a play with his legs. He’s elusive. He’s hard to bring down,” said defensive lineman Gabe Reid. “He’s got a big, strong body and he can throw the football. That combination of things really puts him at the top of that list.”

“Not only is he shifty and mobile, but he’s a strong kid,” linebacker Karene Reid said of Williams. “Arm tackles aren’t going to do it. You really have to have great body position to take him down.”

How confident is Whittingham that his defense can put pressure on Williams with four pass-rushers? 

“Getting pressure with four is one thing. Keeping him caged in is another. You can get there but you can’t sack him because he’s so elusive and he’s strong, too. I mean, he is so strong,” Whittingham said. “So many defenders during the course of the season have dripped right off him because you just can’t get him down.

“It’s not so much a function of how many you’re bringing but trying to keep him in a cage and not let him get out on the edges. Because when he gets out on the edges, he’s dangerous. He’s dangerous anywhere. But particularly dangerous when he escapes outside.”

Gabe Reid said that to have success against USC, the defensive line will have to work together to get to the quarterback. 

We’ve done a good job on getting some pressure on the quarterbacks,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll continue that pattern this week.”

Williams will be on a big stage Friday, with his sights on a Pac-12 championship and a berth in the CFP. And he’s looking to make his final argument that he deserves the Heisman Trophy.

“He’s a playmaker. He’s a big-time talent,” Gabe Reid said. “But we’re looking to contain him. We’re looking to spoil their fun.”

Pac-12 Championship Game

No. 11 Utah (9-3, 8-2)

vs. No. 4 USC (11-1, 8-1)

Friday, 6 p.m. MST

Allegiant Stadium

TV: Fox

Radio: ESPN 700