What to watch for in USC Trojans’ game against Notre Dame

His teammates called him a gamer, a winner, Superman.

After a nationally televised, primetime rivalry win over UCLA in which Caleb Williams threw for a career-high 470 yards and clinched USC’s spot in the Pac-12 championship game, the Trojans hope to add another title:

Heisman.

USC officially launched the quarterback’s Heisman platform this week, releasing a website and social media campaign leading up to No. 6 USC’s regular-season finale against No. 13 Notre Dame at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Coliseum.

The platform highlighted Williams’ multicultural background and philanthropy alongside his record-setting play with the tagline “He is He13man,” a play on Williams’ jersey number. He posed between former USC stars Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, holding Bush’s jersey while the former Heisman winnerseach held autographed versions of Williams’ No. 13.

USC receiver Michael Jackson III didn’t need the hype video and media blitz. Williams was already No. 1 in his book.

“We knew before the season started, he was that guy,” Jackson said this week. “He’s proven himself so far this season, he’s had a great season, so it’s no question that he should be Heisman.”

Here’s what to watch for as USC finishes its regular season:

The H-word

USC quarterback Caleb Williams avoids the rush of UCLA linebacker Carl Jones Jr. in the second half at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 19.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

His offensive linemen don’t always see Williams’ feats in real time, but they see enough to be amazed.

“That’s why I think people are throwing around that word, that H-word,” left guard Andrew Vorhees said. “An incredible football player, just Superman out there sometimes.”

Williams, who did not speak to local reporters after practice Wednesday, has thrown for 3,480 yards and 33 touchdowns with just three interceptions while completing 64.9% of his passes. He’s been among Heisman contenders all year, but USC’s 14-point comeback against UCLA vaulted him into pole position, according to oddsmakers.

To stay in front, Williams needs another rivalry win against No. 13 Notre Dame, which would give the Trojans (10-1, 8-1 Pac-12) their second victory over a ranked opponent and keep them in the College Football Playoff hunt.

Since the CFP debuted in 2014, only one player — Lamar Jackson in 2016 — has won college football’s highest individual honor without helping his team make the final four.

Riley revolution

USC head coach Lincoln Riley checks his play list during a game against California.

USC head coach Lincoln Riley checks his play list during a game against California at the Coliseum on Nov. 5.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

With a win Saturday, Lincoln Riley can match Howard Jones and John Robinson for the most wins by a USC coach in his debut season. USC’s improvement from four to 10 wins is the second-biggest single-season turnaround in school history with a chance to match McKay’s jump from four wins in 1961 to 11 during the undefeated national championship run in 1962.

Jackson, who had three catches for 42 yards against UCLA, cited the team’s camaraderie and Riley’s ability to keep players focused each week as catalysts for the quick improvement.

“Just coming off a low last year, we’re not getting too big-headed, we’re not getting too full of ourselves,” Jackson said. “We’re still locked in each week and that’s what the coaches implemented to us.”

Something to prove

USC cornerback Mekhi Blackmon puts a big hit on UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

USC cornerback Mekhi Blackmon puts a big hit on UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the first half at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 19.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

College Football Playoff committee chair Boo Corrigan hinted on ESPN this week that USC’s defense, which has given up 35 or more points in four of its last five games, was keeping the Trojans behind two-loss Louisiana State in the all-important CFP rankings. The North Carolina State athletic director said members of the committee wanted “to see a little bit more” from the Trojans defense.

Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said he didn’t see the comment but was quick to agree.

“It’s very real in terms of the responsibility we have on our side of the ball not simply to be the group that just hangs on,” Grinch said. “So we gotta play at a much higher level.”

The Trojans are rebuilding a unit that set records for futility last year with school worsts in yards allowed per play (6.4) and points per game (31.8). Their marks are better this season, the Trojans giving up 26.3 points per game and 6.1 yards per play. The Irish have scored 35 or more points in five consecutive games, all wins.

Here we go again

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer runs past Boston College defensive back Jaiden Woodbey.

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer (87) runs past Boston College defensive back Jaiden Woodbey (9) during the first half on Nov. 19 in South Bend, Ind.

(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

The Trojans gave up 234 receiving yards to Utah’s Dalton Kincaid, the most by a Football Bowl Subdivision tight end this year. That mark doesn’t bode well for Saturday’s matchup with Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, whom Grinch called “the best tight end in the country.”

The senior who leads Notre Dame with 711 receiving yards, 59 catches and seven touchdowns set school records for a tight end with 840 receiving yards and seven touchdowns last year and was a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award, which honors the nation’s top tight end. He set school records for career receptions, touchdown catches and receiving yards as a tight end this season and has at least one catch in each of his 34 career appearances.

When asked about USC’s focus against Mayer after Kincaid’s field day, Grinch’s point-blank answer elicited a few chuckles from local reporters.

“Tackle him when he’s got the ball,” the defensive coordinator said.

It’s easier said than done for the defense that gave up 105 yards after the catch to Kincaid.




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