LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California's defense gave up 28 points and 290 yards in the second half. The Trojans' special teams botched an extra point and then got bamboozled on an onside kick while California transformed a near-blowout into a near-thriller.
Despite every mistake by his USC teammates, Caleb Williams simply wouldn't allow them to lose.
Williams passed for 360 yards, rushed for a touchdown and threw two of his four scoring passes to Michael Jackson III, leading No. 9 USC to a 41-35 victory over Cal on Saturday night.
Williams capped his latest standout effort by rushing 15 yards up the middle on a keeper for the decisive first down with 2:11 to play, using up Cal's final timeout and keeping all of the Trojans' season goals achievable.
“We didn't play our best on really any of the sides (of the ball),” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “Didn't have a very good first half offensively. Did not finish the game well defensively. Made some big special teams plays, but also gave up a few. Obviously a lot to improve on. We know we're going to have to improve, but if you can improve by winning, you're going to be there in the end.”
Tahj Washington caught seven passes for 112 yards and a touchdown for the Trojans (8-1, 6-1 Pac-12), whose defense was shredded in the second half of a third straight subpar outing. But Williams went 26 for 41 without a turnover and coolly kept the Trojans ahead in the fourth quarter of his second straight outstanding performance without his top two receivers, injured Jordan Addison and Mario Williams.
In his last three games, Caleb Williams has passed for 1,152 yards with 14 TDs and no interceptions to make a run into Heisman Trophy consideration.
Travis Dye also rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown in USC's 15th victory in 17 meetings with Cal (3-6, 1-5). Tight end Lake McRee caught a TD pass with 5:34 to play while the Trojans held off the Bears' late rally.
“We know we've just got to get back to work in practice," USC cornerback Mekhi Blackmon said. “We'll figure it out.”
USC is off to its first 8-1 start since 2008, and the Trojans kept themselves in the race for the College Football Playoff by improving to 5-0 at the Coliseum under Riley to begin a month in which they won't travel farther than Pasadena to finish the regular season. Riley knows the Trojans are far from a juggernaut, but they're also a resourceful group with a record to prove it.
“In my experience with these things, you get to the end, and nobody remembers how,” said Riley, who took Oklahoma to three College Football Playoffs. “You either found a way to win them or you didn’t, and the reality is this team is 8-1 with everything in front of us.”
Jack Plummer passed for 406 yards and threw TD passes to Monroe Young, Marvin Anderson and Jeremiah Hunter for Cal, which has lost five straight and six of seven despite a stirring second-half rally.
“We know SC is a great team with phenomenal talent, great speed,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “But we have expectations to play better football. I love the competitiveness. Our guys never quit ... but at the end of the day, it's about winning.”
Jaydn Ott rushed for his second touchdown with 2:31 to play, and the 2-point conversion trimmed USC's lead to 41-35. But Williams and USC's powerhouse offense barely stayed in front.
Star freshman Ott scored on Cal's opening drive, while Dye scored a touchdown in the eighth consecutive game to put the Trojans ahead for good early in the second quarter. Ott and Dye are both products of Norco High School in Riverside County.
Jackson, a promising midseason addition to the Trojans' receiver rotation, scored on a 7-yard catch right before halftime and added a 59-yard catch-and-run TD on a screen pass early in the third quarter.
“Where we really played poorly was the end of the (first) half, start of the third (quarter),” Wilcox said. “Two weeks in a row, just bad football.”
Jackson's second TD put the Trojans up 27-7, but Cal finally got rolling with Monroe's TD catch midway through the third quarter. Anderson caught a 47-yard TD pass when USC blew its coverage and left him wide open with 12:56 to play, and Cal recovered an onside kick before Hunter made a 3-yard TD catch.
California: The Bears would have to run the table in their final three games to reach six victories, beating both Oregon State and UCLA in the process. That seems highly unlikely after this ugly skid, so Cal might want to focus on salvaging the most important day of the season with a win in the 125th Big Game against Stanford in two weeks.
Southern California: The Trojans' defense simply doesn't look talented enough yet to beat many elite teams, so their most likely path to a Pac-12 title or a CFP berth is to outscore everybody. That's extremely difficult, but Williams' brilliance can give the Trojans a shot in their upcoming showdowns with UCLA and Notre Dame.
California: At Oregon State on Saturday.
Southern California: Hosts Colorado on Friday.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25