Three weeks into his debut season at USC, Caleb Williams seemed well on his way to soaring past even the highest of expectations set upon his high-profile arrival. The sophomore quarterback was completing better than 74% of his passes and averaging better than 10 yards per attempt. He dominated down the field and stunned with his escapability, looking every bit the part of a preseason Heisman favorite.
Three weeks later, at the midway point of USC’s season, the reviews aren’t quite as glowing. The most critical came this week from the quarterback himself.
“I’ve played all right,” Williams said when asked to assess his performance through six games. “I feel like I could play a lot better. I don’t feel like I’ve unlocked everything that I can do and my ability. Trying to get to that point because this team needs my best throughout this last stretch of the season.”
Williams ran wild two Saturdays ago in USC’s win over Arizona State, but that 348-yard, three-touchdown explosion was sandwiched between two less-than-stellar showings. His completion rate has fallen 18% during the last three weeks compared to the three weeks before, while his yards per attempt has tumbled by more than three yards. It’s no coincidence USC has averaged three fewer touchdowns per game during that stretch.
Lincoln Riley acknowledged the quarterback’s play needs to improve, but also noted that Williams, with 13 starts under his belt, was “just hitting the point where he’s started a full season of college football.”
“He can play more consistent, and I think he knows that,” the USC coach said. “He’s made a lot of spectacular plays. I think he knows he can make more routine, consistent plays and just continue to improve.”
Any inconsistencies through the air have yet to cost the 6-0 Trojans, due in large part to Williams’ late-game heroics. But with the Pac-12’s top pass defense on tap Saturday, USC will need its quarterback at his sharpest in Utah, where the Trojans have won just twice in the past decade.
The urgency posed by the Utes isn’t lost on Williams, who said Wednesday he was “focusing on the small things” this week. His top wideout echoed the sentiment when asked about last week’s lagging aerial attack.
“We just gotta stay focused a little bit more, be a little bit more detailed within our releases and our routes,” receiver Jordan Addison said. “I feel like everything will turn around.”
Reigniting Addison’s connection with the quarterback is a good place to start. The reigning Biletnikoff Award winner was held in check by Washington State, which limited him to three catches for a season-low 37 yards. Addison was similarly slowed by Oregon State before he caught the game-winning touchdown.
Addison, who played almost exclusively in the slot last season at Pittsburgh, said defenses have played him a bit differently as he’s lined up on the outside for USC. Nevertheless, he’s produced 32 catches for 479 yards and six touchdowns.
“What I notice is the leverages they play against me,” Addison said. “Most of the time, they play a lot more outside leverage to keep me from getting outside. That’s one of the big things I’ve been noticing, it’s been a little bit harder to get outside. But just the receiver that I am, I have to make it work.”
USC’s quarterback said he’s also seen defenses vary their looks against the Trojans’ passing attack in recent weeks. That makes honing in on the finer points of his play all the more important from here.
“The small things really matter and they matter more throughout the second half of the season,” Williams said. “You can’t think that you’re going to go out there and complete the same pass that you completed three weeks ago if you’re not focusing on the small things. So focusing on the small things, staying consistent with those and then like I said they turn out pretty well.”
After sitting out unexpectedly last week, inside linebacker Shane Lee is “further along than he was” in his recovery from an apparent hand injury, Riley said.
Riley said Lee’s injury didn’t improve as quickly as USC had hoped last week. Lee’s status for this Saturday remains up in the air.