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Caleb Williams finds the end zone once more in triple OT, and No. 9 USC survives Arizona 43-41

Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams, left, celebrates with wide receiver Kyron Hudson (10) after Williams scored a two-point conversion during overtime of an NCAA college football game against Arizona Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams, left, celebrates with wide receiver Kyron Hudson (10) after Williams scored a two-point conversion during overtime of an NCAA college football game against Arizona Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

BY GREG BEACHAM contributing

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Caleb Williams actually doesn’t like to run with the ball, even though he’s clearly exceptional at it.

When No. 9 Southern California needed its Heisman Trophy winner to leave his comfort zone during an inspired challenge from Arizona, Williams got it done with his legs all the way into triple overtime.

“Just doing my job,” Williams said. “Whatever it takes to win a game.”

Williams rushed for three touchdowns before running for a two-point conversion in the third overtime, and No. 9 USC stopped Arizona’s final attempt in a wild 43-41 victory Saturday night.

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Williams passed for 219 yards and accounted for four total touchdowns for the Trojans (6-0, 4-0 Pac-12), who botched a 25-yard field goal attempt on the final snap of regulation after Williams led a 59-yard drive in the last 2:08.

Williams shook it off and coolly led USC to scores on each of its three overtime possessions. The Trojans called an unorthodox play for the two-point attempt in the third OT, with the entire offensive line shifting out toward the sideline before Williams took the snap from tight end Lake McRee and ran the other way, artfully stretching the ball to the pylon.

“Lanes kept opening up,” Williams said about his 41 yards rushing. “They kept dropping off. They left me with big lanes. I know I haven’t ran this year much. Don’t really like to run, to be honest with you. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

The defense then finished it when linebacker Mason Cobb led a stop of D.J. Williams behind the line. USC was able to celebrate after falling behind by 17 points early and then missing numerous opportunities to it away.

USC remained unbeaten at the Coliseum during coach Lincoln Riley’s 1 1/2 years in charge, but the Trojans trailed for the first time this season and eventually needed another superlative effort from their star quarterback to survive the Wildcats’ energized upset bid.

“You don’t want to put yourself in that hole,” Riley said. “But when you’re in it, you can feel sorry for yourself or you can dig yourself out.”

Noah Fifita passed for 303 yards and threw two of his five touchdown passes to Jacob Cowing in overtime, but the Wildcats (3-3, 1-2) blew a big lead, committed 99 yards in penalties and fell just short of a signature victory under third-year coach Jedd Fisch.

“I think the 21-point underdog stuff has got to probably come to an end here soon,” Fisch said. “We’ve got a really good football team, and unfortunately we had two games we’ve lost in overtime and one game we’ve lost by a touchdown. … I think our team is as good as anybody that we play and will play, and they’re just getting better.”

Both teams had reasons to regret their late-game execution and decision-making.

After USC went up 28-20 on Williams’ second TD run early in the fourth quarter, Arizona tied it with 8:17 to play on a gutsy TD pass and a two-point conversion pass by Fifita. The Wildcats forced a punt by USC and drove past midfield, but Tyler Loop missed a 50-yard field goal attempt with 2:08 to play.

And then the Trojans didn’t get points after having first-and-goal with 24 seconds left. Williams misfired on a pass and fumbled another snap before a high snap on fourth down forced USC’s holder out of his crouch, stunning the Coliseum into silence.

Williams rushed 18 yards for a TD in the first overtime, but Cowing caught a TD pass from Fifita on Arizona’s first OT snap. The Wildcats didn’t go for a two-point conversion with the victory in their hands, and Fisch said afterward that he didn’t regret the decision.

“I trust Coach Fisch,” Fifita said. “I told him going into the last overtime that whatever he calls, I trust him. I don’t doubt him. We wouldn’t be here without him. He called a great game. There were plays I didn’t execute on my part that would have changed the outcome, but I’m still learning and I trust him.”

Cowing scored again to open the second overtime, but USC safety Calen Bullock swatted away Fifita’s pass on the conversion attempt. Austin Jones then rushed for an 11-yard TD for USC, but Williams couldn’t hit Brenden Rice for the win.

Tanner McLachlan caught an early TD pass from Fifita, an Orange County native with a huge block of family and friends in the Coliseum stands while he filled in impressively for injured Jayden de Laura. Fifita went 25 of 35.

Cowing caught 10 passes for 87 yards and four TDs, and Jonah Coleman rushed for 143 yards.

THE TAKEAWAY

Arizona: Once the emotions cool from this thriller, the Wildcats will feel great about their progress under Fisch. They also might have a quarterback controversy on their hands after Fifita showed his size is no obstacle to making big plays.

USC: The Trojans showed tremendous heart, but they’re at the halfway point of their season with far too many flaws to be a serious national title contender. After the offense’s mediocre showing against Arizona, USC doesn’t even look much like a Pac-12 contender. And the second half of the schedule is exponentially harder, starting next weekend in South Bend.

UP NEXT

Arizona: At Washington State on Oct. 14.

USC: At Notre Dame on Oct. 14.

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