For a handful of individuals, Caleb Williams‘ Heisman-level season was appreciated on tape delay. When Williams was tearing off long runs, escaping pressure in the pocket and delivering Patrick Mahomes-like lasers to receivers, his offensive linemen weren’t always able to watch. They were blocking.
So every Monday, when USC came in for film study, the linemen who played in the game would sit and take in the full Williams show for essentially the first time. The delayed gratification gave players like center Brett Neilon a greater appreciation for what Williams has done.
“Blocking for him during the game, I don’t always get to see what’s doing behind me,” Neilon said. “But when I go back and watch the film, I’m like, ‘Wow, he really made a huge play here,’ when I thought it was just like a routine throw. Playing with him on the field is special, but then you rewatch that tape, you really get to see, he’s a playmaker. He’s just a gamer.”
“He’s just been incredible,” said offensive lineman Andrew Vorhees. “I think that’s why you hear that ‘H’ word thrown out. He’s been Superman out there.”
The phrase “Heisman moment” is often overused. Usually, the player who finds himself being paired alongside those two words is in need of a Heisman moment to solidify their case as the year’s best player in college football.
In the case of Williams and his 2022 season, it is difficult to overuse the phrase, in part, because there are a handful of moments that qualify. Williams did not win the Pac-12 championship and he will not have a chance to win the national title. But over the course of 13 games, the sophomore who transferred from Oklahoma to USC wowed with single plays more than any other player in college football.
Williams turned linebackers into speed bumps, cornerbacks into aimless wanderers in need of a map and defensive lineman into traffic cones. His arm made throws that defied physics and his legs kept trudging even when there didn’t seem to be a path out. As soon as the ball touched his hands, Williams turned extraordinary throws into the norm and made magic out of messes to the point where it seemed, at times, that he was better off breaking the play rather than following it. Chaos suited him; improvisation was second nature.
And that’s all before you consider the numbers: 4,075 passing yards, 37 touchdowns, 66% completion percentage, 372 rushing yards and 10 more touchdowns on the ground as well as only four interceptions, zero fumbles and an 86.5 QBR.
Williams certainly ascended as the season progressed, but from Game 1, he was showing the ability to turn games into highlight factories for his résumé. So, as Williams gets ready for what will likely be his Heisman coronation this Saturday (8 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App), here’s a look at his best moments this season.
The long ball vs. Stanford
After easily dispatching Rice in the opener, Williams and USC headed to Palo Alto to try and avoid another bad loss at Stanford. The tone of the game was set early by Williams. With the score 7-7 late in the first quarter, he dropped back and took his time in the pocket before lacing a pinpoint pass to Jordan Addison on the run. The ball flew at least 60 yards and hit Addison in stride for a 75-yard touchdown — the longest Williams would have all season.
Just as his scrambling became a fixture of his performances, Williams’ arm strength was also on display all season. In some ways, a throw like this — with plenty of time and his feet set — would be one of the easier ones he’d have all season.
From a timeliness standpoint, this might have been one of Williams’ best throws. The potent USC offense had stalled in a low-scoring affair in Corvallis. But with one minute and 20 seconds left and down 10-14, the Trojans needed a lifesaver to keep their record intact. Enter Williams.
Had this throw to Addison been a millisecond sooner or a millisecond later, it likely wouldn’t have been caught, USC would have probably dropped the game and the season would have looked quite different.
A different kind of arm strength vs. Washington State
It’s third-and-16 near midfield and Williams is on the run, rolling out to his right. He spots Mario Williams open downfield, but doesn’t try to stop, set up and throw. Instead, from the 43-yard line, Williams pushes off his back foot while on the run and leaps into the air as he sends the ball downfield. By the time Mario catches it, he’s a footstep from the end zone. It’s a 43-yard touchdown throw that will later be gawked at by film buffs on Twitter. It’s one of many NFL-level throws Williams has all season.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 8, 2022
This was Williams’ first true showcase, in large part because the Sun Devils actually pressured him pretty well. But it didn’t matter. Against ASU, Williams displayed his otherworldly capabilities when extending plays. On multiple occasions, Williams found himself with seemingly no option, only to slip out of potential sacks and turn losses into gains.
“I think it’s black magic,” running back Travis Dye said. “I go off and do my job, I turn around it looks like he’s about to be sacked, and all of a sudden he Houdinis out of it and we have a 20-yard gain. I don’t understand.”
On one particular play in the first quarter, Williams was completely wrapped up by a Sun Devils defender who had jumped on his back. Williams not only stayed upright, but proceeded to break into the open field, completely break a defender’s ankles and earn a first down with a 20-yard run on third-and-4. Later in the game, it looked like Williams was about to get sacked in the end zone for a safety, but with two ASU linemen converging on him, Williams was somehow able to throw a high fly ball in the vicinity of Addison, who pulled it down for a catch.
“We practice things like that every day, it’s called scramble rules,” Addison said. “So once it happens in the game we’re ready for it.”
The Heisman-worthy moments in a loss (Part 1) vs. Utah
USC would lose this game by one point after Utah nailed a 2-point conversion on its final drive, but the show Williams put on is worthy of remembrance. There was the 55-yard run he pulled off on third-and-8. The fading, back-foot throw to Mario Williams for 65 yards. And the spin move backward to avoid a blitzing Utah defender near the red zone, only to fire another back-foot throw to the back of the end zone for another score. And that was all in the first half.
here’s that absurd caleb williams to mario williams pass pic.twitter.com/KMTqhpXE0n
— Paolo Uggetti (@PaoloUggetti) October 16, 2022
Williams had another one of those back-stepping touchdown throws later, but no stretch was more awe-inducing than the two Houdini-like plays he completed in the second quarter. Having ran back into his own end zone while facing pressure from a handful of Utah defenders, Williams turned into a basketball point guard crossing over a zone defense. Instead of shooting the ball in this case, Williams kept it and ran a total of 30 yards without being touched until he stepped out of bounds. The catch? The play was called back because of a holding penalty.
So Williams repeated it. Sort of. On third-and-15, instead of moving horizontally and out when the pressure came, Williams moved vertically and stayed in, juked one defender and threw a ball on a rope to Addison, who was crossing the middle of the field.
“He wants to extend the play so he’s going to do it,” Addison said. “He’s not going to just sit there and see that nobody’s open, take the sack or throw it out. He’s going to make something happen.”
The no-look toss vs. Colorado
This one is self-explanatory. In a largely overlooked game where USC blew out Colorado, Williams made this timely no-look toss to running back Austin Jones for a touchdown that quietly began the comparisons to Mahomes.
Looking Like Mahomes 🪄
— All-American Bowl (@AABonNBC) November 12, 2022
Earlier in the season, Williams had done nothing to temper those, either. When asked if he had watched the Mahomes highlight against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he pirouetted his way to a touchdown throw, Williams said he saw it, and thought, “I can do that too.”
The rivalry game showcase vs. UCLA
It was a game that both USC and Williams needed — on prime time against their biggest rival — to gain attention and national consideration, both for the playoff and the Heisman. Williams, for his part, wasn’t as flashy as he was effective. The sophomore completed 74.4% of his passes, threw for a season-high 470 yards and scored twice in the air and once on the ground on his way to a 48-45 win.
“I’ve played with so many great quarterbacks in my life and I think he’s one of the ones where you go out definitely and you have no worries no matter what the score is,” said wide receiver Kyle Ford. “More than anything there’s a certain confidence with him.”
But the moment that elicited the most chatter was this throw in the second quarter to wide receiver Brenden Rice. It was perhaps the throw that encapsulated Williams’ best. First, he stepped up in the pocket, slid left and away to avoid incoming pressure. He had room to run for a decent gain on second down, but instead he pivoted horizontally to remain behind the line of scrimmage. There, he threw a dart to Rice while on the run, which became the kind of throw that needed to be rewatched from the angle behind Williams to really be appreciated.
Another absurd throw from Caleb Williams that made that TD drive happen pic.twitter.com/1KUqY1YAg1
— Paolo Uggetti (@PaoloUggetti) November 20, 2022
Of course, he had another on-the-run throw that was just as good, if not better
Caleb Williams is ridiculous, holy moly. What a throw and catch pic.twitter.com/nShrth4J3K
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) November 20, 2022
The Heisman game vs. Notre Dame
This one can be dubbed the “running backward game,” if you will. For 60 minutes, Williams avoided the Notre Dame pressure in a way that, perhaps for most quarterbacks, was counterintuitive. The Irish did have two sacks, but they could have had eight had it not been for Williams literally running backward to stay alive and turn negative plays into positive ones. He did it by what had become, at that point, his signature play: avoid pressure, roll right or left and throw on the run off the back foot. This time, though, he added some shuffling backward for difficulty.
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) November 30, 2022
Surprisingly, though, Williams’ most Heisman-like moment was a play that resulted in a punt. Near the USC end zone, Williams had third-and-20. Irish defenders rushed at him, but he spun backward out of one, then stepped back even further as another tried to reach for his legs. At this point, his scrambling had set him back 15 more yards, but Williams rolled to his right and found Mario Williams downfield with an off-balance throw. It would not be enough for a first down, but it would be enough to make it onto the highlight reel. The chants of “Heisman” that ensued at USC that night were all but a formality. That Williams finally leaned into the noise and did the Heisman pose a handful of times after scoring (though according to him, it was at the constant behest of his teammates) was fitting. It was, after all, the night he might have secured the award.
Caleb Williams does a great job to keep the play alive for the completion, tops it off with a TD run later in the drive and then strikes the Heisman pose.
The Heisman-worthy moments in a loss (Part 2) vs. Utah
The Utes were USC’s kryptonite. They outplayed the Trojans on both occasions and were worthy of the Pac-12 championship. Yet that didn’t stop Williams from showcasing what he had been doing all season, even while injured.
The play that will be remembered, for better or worse, is the one where Williams apparently “popped” his hamstring. It was an immediate highlight as Williams rumbled past nearly every defender on a 59-yard run that left him out of breath.
Caleb Williams makes a play with his feet and runs down the field for a 59-yard rush.
The injury he suffered on that play set him back the rest of the game, but he wasn’t done churning out highlights.
“S—,” Lincoln Riley said postgame. “That’s as gutsy a performance as you’ll ever see.”
He had yet another, back-foot throw for a huge gain, another on-the-run strike to keep a crucial drive alive late, and then he did this:
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) December 3, 2022
This throw had a customary slide that avoided pressure, but the throw itself — a sidearm flick while flat-footed around a barreling defender to a streaking Addison in stride — might have been his best of the season.
Of course, none of it was enough for USC to overcome Utah. And so Williams’ season ended with a Heisman résumé, but a step away from the College Football Playoff. The individual reward Williams might receive Saturday will not soothe, but it will represent a season replete with electric moments.
What is bad news for defenses across the country is good news for Williams and USC: Heisman Trophy or not, Williams will be back next season. What will he do for an encore?