LOS ANGELES (AP) — Caleb Williams was lying disconsolate on his couch a few hours after Southern California's season-crushing loss to Utah two weeks ago when he got on the phone with coach Lincoln Riley.
Although the Trojans' national title dreams were all but dashed by two straight defeats, the Heisman Trophy winner and his mentor just didn't think their probable final season together was anywhere near finished.
“It was a weird feeling of, you know, you still have that feeling inside that you can do something special,” Williams said. “He said to me, ‘You’ve had a weird-slash-special career. We’ve done so much crazy stuff together. So why not just add to the list and try and do something crazy?’”
Winning the final three games of this disappointing season for the 24th-ranked Trojans (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12) would now qualify as something crazy. Since mid-September, USC has looked nothing like a contender for any title — yet the Trojans are still firmly in the running for the Pac-12 championship, and Williams still hasn't given up hope of sneaking into the College Football Playoff.
The Trojans honestly seem overdue for an impressive performance after weeks of underachievement. They have their last chance Saturday as Coliseum underdogs against No. 5 Washington (8-0, 5-0).
The Huskies are unbeaten, but barely. They've stayed on the tightrope leading to the CFP with narrow escapes from their last two games against rebuilding Arizona State and Stanford.
While they haven't looked great since holding off Oregon three weeks ago, the Huskies' goals are still achievable. Coach Kalen DeBoer thinks his team has learned tenacity it can apply to the stretch run.
“Every win is hard, especially when you get to conference play and teams can do a good job of trying to see what it is they need to try to do to slow you down," DeBoer said. "We’re doing the same for the teams that we play. So yeah, I think every season that I’ve been a part of, there’s very few where it’s just been this clean, easy ride throughout the course of the year.”
The final month's schedules look awfully daunting for both the Huskies and the Trojans, but the opportunities available to both teams are equally enticing. Washington's finish is a nightmare gauntlet of USC, Utah, Oregon State and Washington State, while the Trojans must face three ranked opponents of their own in Washington, Oregon and UCLA.
Both journeys begin with this showdown between star quarterbacks Williams and Michael Penix Jr., whose Heisman candidacy lost some steam in the last two weeks. A meeting with USC's porous defense is a perfect opportunity to crank it back up.
While Williams' explosive offense appears to be capable of doing something remarkable on any Saturday, the Trojans' defense has been their clear weakness for the second straight season. Coordinator Alex Grinch's unit is 111th in the FBS while allowing nearly 421 yards per game, and its 32.6 points per game are good for 109th after struggling California piled up 527 yards in USC's 50-49 win last week.
DeBoer said one of the big challenges for Washington’s defense will be accepting and quickly moving on when Williams makes big plays that otherwise could lead to frustration.
“Your mindset has to be that he’s going to make some plays,” DeBoer said. “You’re not the reigning Heisman quarterback without that ability, and the playmaking that he has is exceptional.”
What Washington needs to avoid is giving Williams and the Trojans’ offense free yards. The Huskies had seven penalties last week against Stanford — five on the defensive side, including multiple pass interference calls.
Washington has one of the deepest receiver groups in the country despite injury setbacks. Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk have played in all eight games and rank among the Pac-12's top three wideouts, but Jalen McMillan has played only a handful of snaps since injuring his leg in September, and he's uncertain for Saturday.
The Trojans haven't been as productive for Williams, but their talent is significant with Tahj Washington, Brenden Rice, Dorian Singer and speedy freshman Zachariah Branch all capable of big things.
"They have some of the top receivers in the nation," Rice said of Washington. “Some would call them the best receiver group in the nation. I’d put my guys up against anybody, and I can’t wait to go out there and see my guys perform.”
It’s been quite a while since Washington and USC met at the Coliseum. Due to scheduling rotations and the 2020 game being canceled, the Huskies haven’t played the Trojans in Los Angeles since 2015. Washington won 17-12 that day, but the Trojans avenged it a year later with a 26-14 win in Seattle when Washington was ranked No. 4.
The last time the teams met at all was 2019 for a 28-14 win by the Huskies. They’ll be familiar foes yet again with both schools moving to the Big Ten and facing each other in 2024, 2026 and 2027.
AP Sports Writer Tim Booth in Seattle contributed.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football