LOS ANGELES — It was easy to get swept up in the magic of Caleb Williams on Saturday night in Southern California’s 38-27 victory over Notre Dame.
Just as easy to lose sight of reality as the Trojans chase a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Williams, USC’s sublime quarterback, won’t be able to singlehandedly carry fourth-ranked USC to its first CFP appearance. In fact, the fate of coach Lincoln Riley’s team may hinge more on something else – USC’s periodically maligned defense.
“The reality is we’re not sitting here 11-1 without our defense,’’ Riley said during his postgame news conference.
At the same time, without this defense, the Trojans would be heading into the Pac-12 championship game Friday against Utah with more assurance of securing the victory – one it’ll need for a spot in the CFP.
Utah has exposed USC once before.
On Oct. 15, Utah piled up 562 yards and handed the Trojans their lone loss — a 43-42 setback that is a lingering reminder of the Trojans’ weakness.
In four of its past six games, USC has surrendered 35 points or more. Despite a solid performance against Notre Dame, the Trojans rank 91st among Division I teams in total defense while allowing 405.2 yards per game and 61st in scoring defense while allowing 26.3 points per game.
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“We talk to our guys a lot about the gap between where we’re at versus what we’re capable of and we took some steps to close that gap tonight,’’ Riley said.
Indeed, the gap did appear to be closing.
Williams befuddled Notre Dame at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum while throwing for 232 yards and a touchdown on 18-of-22 passing and rushing for three more touchdowns. But Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman noted other things that stymied his team.
Such as Notre Dame’s first series, when USC stopped the Fighting Irish on downs. On third-and-2, linebacker Shane Lee tackled Notre Dame running back Logan Diggs for a four-yard loss.
On its next possession, Notre Dame drove to USC’s 27-yard-line and on fourth-and-1 went for it. USC came up with another stop.
USC also limited Notre Dame to 90 yards rushing, about 100 yards below the Fighting Irish’s average.
“Phenomenal job tonight,’’ Riley said. “Really physical at the line of scrimmage.’’
Then there was USC strong safety Calen Bullock intercepting a pass late in the fourth quarter, a week after a last-minute interception saved USC in its 48-45 victory over UCLA. But there’s still reason for USC fans to sweat.
Against Notre Dame, USC gave up 319 yards passing as Notre Dame’s Drew Pyne completed his first 15 passes and finished 23-for-26 with a touchdown.
That helped clarify USC’s situation as it prepares for the Pac-12 championship game. In Williams, the Trojans likely have the best quarterback in the country and they likely have among the best offenses in the country.
But can USC’s defense stop the opposing one?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Southern Cal's defense may be what carries Trojans into CFP