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Football: Caleb Williams’ improvisation skills key to USC’s rout of CU Buffs

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Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams throws a pass against Colorado during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John McCoy)
Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams throws a pass against Colorado during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John McCoy)

LOS ANGELES – Leading up to Friday’s matchup with No. 8 USC, Colorado interim head coach Mike Sanford marveled at Caleb Williams’ improvisation skills.

The star quarterback for the Trojans, Williams has a knack for excelling on what Sanford calls “second plays” – or turning something out of nothing on the fly when the play breaks down.

On Friday night, it was Williams’ second-play ability that got the Trojans going en route to their 55-17 blowout of the Buffs.

CU held USC to eight yards in the first quarter. And, as the second quarter began, the Trojans faced a third-and-19 situation at their own 19. Williams dropped back, was flushed from the pocket, scanned the field and found receiver Kyle Ford. He dumped the ball to Ford, who turned it into a 24-yard gain.

Three plays later, the Trojans had third-and-23 at their 30-yard line. Williams again scrambled, again scanned the field and again found Ford, this time for 42 yards. Thos two plays set up USC’s first touchdown and they were two of many gains created by Williams’ ability to extend plays.

“All of a sudden, Caleb on third down moves around and finds some time for a small crease and checks the ball down and it’s enough to get a first down,” Sanford said. “The third and longs in the third quarter, in particular, those stood out. And that was really Caleb Williams and their receivers making plays when the play broke down.”

There were plenty of plays that didn’t break down, too, as Williams didn’t do anything to hurt his Heisman Trophy chances. Williams completed 14-of-26 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing for two scores.

“Obviously Caleb Williams is one of those guys, if you give him a chance to pick you apart, he’s gonna pick you apart,” Sanford said.

CU tried to counter Williams by going with a three-man rush most of the night, dropping eight players into coverage.

It worked early, as CU shut the Trojans down and got three sacks. But, Williams and the Trojans adjusted.

“Our game plan was to drop eight and just rush with three,” defensive lineman Jalen Sami said. “That’s a heavy burden on us D-lineman when you’re rushing three against five. He had a lot of time, he  made some good throws. I don’t know where I’d rank him. He’s definitely a solid quarterback. He’s quick, agile, made some good plays and he had their offense ready.”

Woods, Smith sit

Safety Trevor Woods made the trip but did not dress, while running back Deion Smith was in uniform but did not play. Both were injured during CU’s 49-10 loss to Oregon on Nov. 5.

“Trevor was probably a little bit further along than Deion was, even though they had very similar kind of status going into the game,” Sanford said. “But I fully believe he’ll be back up (and ready to play) these last two games.”

Sanford said Smith wasn’t quite 100% healthy.

“He went through warm ups and we made the decision in warm ups,” Sanford said.

Third downs key

Coming into the game, CU was last in the country on third-down defense, giving up conversions 51.8% of the time. USC was fourth on third-down offense, converting 53.3% of the time.

That difference played out Friday, as USC converted nine of 12 third downs (75%), including 3-for-3 on third-and-14 or more.

CU, meanwhile, converted just three of 12 third downs on offense. The Buffs came in 101st nationally in third down conversation rate, at 35.2%.

Notable

CU gave up a safety for the first time since Oct. 22, 2016, when Sefo Liufau ran out of the back of the end zone with 4 seconds to play in a 10-5 win at Stanford. … Walk-on Jack Hestera had a team-high 39 receiving yards. He’s the first walk-on to lead the Buffs in receiving yards for a game since Scott McKnight did it during the first four games of 2007. … This is the sixth 1-9 start in CU history. It also happened in 1980, 1984, 2006, 2011 and 2012. Three of those five times finished with just one win. … Early in the first quarter, the game was halted for a couple of minutes because of an unauthorized drone flying over the stadium.

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