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Caleb Williams lifts USC past Arizona in triple overtime

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  • USC wide receiver Kyron Hudson (10) celebrates with wide receiver...

    USC wide receiver Kyron Hudson (10) celebrates with wide receiver Duce Robinson (19) and tight end Lake McRee (87) after scoring a touchdown against Arizona late in the second quarter in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • USC wide receiver Brenden Rice, right, makes the over the...

    USC wide receiver Brenden Rice, right, makes the over the shoulder catch in front of Arizona cornerback Ephesians Prysock, left, deep in the Arizona territory in the second quarter in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • USC wide receiver Raleek Brown, center, gets the ball close...

    USC wide receiver Raleek Brown, center, gets the ball close to the end zone after intercepting a pass in the second quarter against Arizona in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams passes the ball during the first...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams passes the ball during the first quarter of their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • After connecting with Brendan Rice on the previous play, USC...

    After connecting with Brendan Rice on the previous play, USC quarterback Caleb Williams, left, fumbles the ball as he is hit by Arizona linebacker Jacob Manu, center, and defensive lineman Isaiah Ward, right, in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Arizona’s Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei tackles USC quarterback Caleb Williams during the...

    Arizona’s Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei tackles USC quarterback Caleb Williams during the fourth quarter on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams reacts after a dropped pass during...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams reacts after a dropped pass during the first quarter of their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • USC wide receiver Brenden Rice hangs on to the ball...

    USC wide receiver Brenden Rice hangs on to the ball on a pass play deep into Arizona territory in the second quarter as Arizona cornerback Ephesians Prysock tries to defend Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • USC wide receiver Brenden Rice, left, makes a catch in...

    USC wide receiver Brenden Rice, left, makes a catch in front of Arizona’s Ephesians Prysock during the second quarter on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • USC safety Calen Bullock tackles Arizona’s DJ Williams during the...

    USC safety Calen Bullock tackles Arizona’s DJ Williams during the first quarter on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • Arizona’s Tyler Manoa tackles USC running back Austin Jones during...

    Arizona’s Tyler Manoa tackles USC running back Austin Jones during overtime on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams runs into the end zone to...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams runs into the end zone to score the first touchdown for the Trojans against Arizona in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita, a former Servite High standout, calls...

    Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita, a former Servite High standout, calls out a play during the first quarter of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • USC cornerback Prophet Brown (6) tackles Arizona running back DJ...

    USC cornerback Prophet Brown (6) tackles Arizona running back DJ Williams to stop Arizona in overtime to win the game in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • USC running back Austin Jones (6) muscles his way into...

    USC running back Austin Jones (6) muscles his way into the end zone to score a touchdown in overtime against Arizona in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • USC running back Austin Jones scores a touchdown in overtime...

    USC running back Austin Jones scores a touchdown in overtime against Arizona in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Arizona running back DJ Williams (8) gets by the USC...

    Arizona running back DJ Williams (8) gets by the USC defense in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams fires a pass against Arizona in...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams fires a pass against Arizona in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • USC running back MarShawn Lloyd gets the ball closer to...

    USC running back MarShawn Lloyd gets the ball closer to the end zone against Arizona in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Arizona running back DJ Williams leaps over USC cornerback Christian...

    Arizona running back DJ Williams leaps over USC cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace during the first half on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing gestures after his touchdown catch...

    Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing gestures after his touchdown catch during the first half of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC coach Lincoln Riley signals to his players late in...

    USC coach Lincoln Riley signals to his players late in the fourth quarter against Arizona in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Arizona wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan reaches up to pull in...

    Arizona wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan reaches up to pull in a pass between USC safety Bryson Shaw, center, and Jude Wolfe (18) to set up a touchdown for the Wildcats in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • USC running back MarShawn Lloyd runs past Arizona defensive lineman...

    USC running back MarShawn Lloyd runs past Arizona defensive lineman Isaiah Ward during the first half on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams, left, is congratulated by offensive lineman...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams, left, is congratulated by offensive lineman Mason Murphy (76) and running back Austin Jones (6) after scoring a conversion in overtime against Arizona in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Arizona coach Jedd Fisch reacts after a touchdown call during...

    Arizona coach Jedd Fisch reacts after a touchdown call during the second quarter of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • Arizona’s Tetairoa McMillan reacts after catching a long pass during...

    Arizona’s Tetairoa McMillan reacts after catching a long pass during the second quarter of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing (2) celebrates his touchdown catch...

    Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing (2) celebrates his touchdown catch with Montana Lemonious-Craig during the first half of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams celebrates after scoring a conversion in...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams celebrates after scoring a conversion in overtime against Arizona in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • USC place kicker Denis Lynch, left, and holder Will Rose...

    USC place kicker Denis Lynch, left, and holder Will Rose can’t convert on an attempt at a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation in their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • USC place kicker Denis Lynch (46) and Will Rose (36)...

    USC place kicker Denis Lynch (46) and Will Rose (36) try to recover from a botched field goal attempt against Arizona late in the fourth quarter in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita throws a pass during the first...

    Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita throws a pass during the first half of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona tight end Tanner McLachlan (84) makes a touchdown catch...

    Arizona tight end Tanner McLachlan (84) makes a touchdown catch during the first half of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona tight end Tanner McLachlan celebrates his touchdown catch during...

    Arizona tight end Tanner McLachlan celebrates his touchdown catch during the first half of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona cornerback Tacario Davis is called for pass interference on...

    Arizona cornerback Tacario Davis is called for pass interference on a pass intended for USC wide receiver Dorian Singer (15) in the fourth quarter in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Arizona tight end Tanner McLachlan (84) celebrates his touchdown catch...

    Arizona tight end Tanner McLachlan (84) celebrates his touchdown catch with teammates during the first half of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams, left, evades the tackle attempt by...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams, left, evades the tackle attempt by Arizona defensive lineman Isaiah Ward during the first half on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams grabs his thigh after being tackled...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams grabs his thigh after being tackled during the first quarter of their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • USC running back Austin Jones (6) scores a touchdown past...

    USC running back Austin Jones (6) scores a touchdown past Arizona safety Gunner Maldonado (9) during overtime on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing (2) is helped off the...

    Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing (2) is helped off the field after an injury during the first half of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita throws a pass during the first...

    Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita throws a pass during the first half of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona’s Sio Nofoagatoto’a (50) and Martell Irby (13) sack USC...

    Arizona’s Sio Nofoagatoto’a (50) and Martell Irby (13) sack USC quarterback Caleb Williams during the second quarter on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • Arizona running back Jonah Coleman, right, runs with the ball...

    Arizona running back Jonah Coleman, right, runs with the ball during the first half of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC safety Calen Bullock, center, breaks up a two-point conversion...

    USC safety Calen Bullock, center, breaks up a two-point conversion attempt intended for Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing (2) during overtime on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws a pass during the first...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws a pass during the first half of their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) is sacked by Arizona defensive...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) is sacked by Arizona defensive lineman Russell Davis II during the first half on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona defensive lineman Sio Nofoagatoto’a (50) celebrates after a sack...

    Arizona defensive lineman Sio Nofoagatoto’a (50) celebrates after a sack by defensive lineman Russell Davis II (99) on USC quarterback Caleb Williams during the first half on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC coach Lincoln Riley calls out a play during the...

    USC coach Lincoln Riley calls out a play during the fourth quarter of their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams avoids a tackle attempt by Arizona’s...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams avoids a tackle attempt by Arizona’s Justin Flowe during the third quarter on Saturday night at the Coliseum. Williams accounted for four touchdowns (three rushing) and ran for the game-winning two-point conversion in the third overtime as ninth-ranked USC escaped with a 43-41 win. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing, left, scores on a touchdown...

    Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing, left, scores on a touchdown catch past USC safety Calen Bullock during overtime on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC running back MarShawn Lloyd (0) scores a touchdown during...

    USC running back MarShawn Lloyd (0) scores a touchdown during the second half of their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona place kicker Tyler Loop (33) lowers his head after...

    Arizona place kicker Tyler Loop (33) lowers his head after missing a field goal during the second half of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws a pass during the first...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws a pass during the first half of their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona running back Jonah Coleman, right, is stopped at the...

    Arizona running back Jonah Coleman, right, is stopped at the goal line by USC safety Calen Bullock during the second half on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona running back Jonah Coleman, right, is tackled by USC...

    Arizona running back Jonah Coleman, right, is tackled by USC linebacker Mason Cobb during the second half on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams rolls out during the first half...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams rolls out during the first half of their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing is tackled by USC cornerback...

    Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing is tackled by USC cornerback Jacobe Covington during the first half on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) throws a touchdown pass to...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) throws a touchdown pass to wide receiver Kyron Hudson as Arizona linebacker Justin Flowe (10) chases Williams during the first half on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC wide receiver Brenden Rice (2) makes a catch as...

    USC wide receiver Brenden Rice (2) makes a catch as Arizona cornerback Ephesians Prysock defends during the first half on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona cornerback Tacario Davis, right, is called for pass interference...

    Arizona cornerback Tacario Davis, right, is called for pass interference as he defends against USC wide receiver Dorian Singer during the second half on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC wide receiver Kyron Hudson (10) celebrates his touchdown catch...

    USC wide receiver Kyron Hudson (10) celebrates his touchdown catch during the first half of their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams, right, celebrates his touchdown with teammates...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams, right, celebrates his touchdown with teammates Austin Jones, left, and Tahj Washington during overtime on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • Arizona wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan, right, scores a two-point conversion...

    Arizona wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan, right, scores a two-point conversion past USC cornerback Ceyair Wright during the second half on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing (2) celebrates his touchdown catch...

    Arizona wide receiver Jacob Cowing (2) celebrates his touchdown catch with tight end Tanner McLachlan during the second half of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • Arizona’s Isaiah Ward, left, tackles USC running back MarShawn Lloyd...

    Arizona’s Isaiah Ward, left, tackles USC running back MarShawn Lloyd during the second quarter on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • USC running back MarShawn Lloyd, right, breaks a tackle against...

    USC running back MarShawn Lloyd, right, breaks a tackle against Arizona’s Martell Irby during the second quarter on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • USC running back MarShawn Lloyd scores a touchdown as he...

    USC running back MarShawn Lloyd scores a touchdown as he evades Arizona’s Jacob Manu (5) during the third quarter on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita looks to pass during the first...

    Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita looks to pass during the first quarter of their game against USC on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams, left, and Max Williams celebrate a...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams, left, and Max Williams celebrate a touchdown during the fourth quarter of their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams, left, runs for a two-point conversion...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams, left, runs for a two-point conversion to give USC the lead in the third overtime of their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams, left, celebrates with wide receiver Kyron...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams, left, celebrates with wide receiver Kyron Hudson (10) after Williams scored a two-point conversion during overtime of their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC’s Prophet Brown (16) and Mason Cobb tackle Arizona’s DJ...

    USC’s Prophet Brown (16) and Mason Cobb tackle Arizona’s DJ Williams (8) to deny a two-point conversion attempt and clinch the Trojans’ 43-41, triple-overtime victory on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • Arizona running back DJ Williams (8) is stopped on a...

    Arizona running back DJ Williams (8) is stopped on a two-point conversion attempt by USC cornerback Prophet Brown (16) and linebacker Mason Cobb, right, on the last play of the Trojans’ 43-41 victory on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • USC safety Calen Bullock celebrates after the final defensive stop...

    USC safety Calen Bullock celebrates after the final defensive stop in their 43-41 victory over Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams is congratulated after the Trojans defeated...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams is congratulated after the Trojans defeated Arizona in overtime in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams takes a selfie for a fan...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams takes a selfie for a fan after the Trojans defeated Arizona in overtime in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • USC quarterback Caleb Williams warms up prior to their game...

    USC quarterback Caleb Williams warms up prior to their game against Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Jamil Muhammad spoke before the questions began, easing himself into a chair at the postgame podium a half hour after collective madness had mercifully settled.

“I need some strong Ibuprofen after this one, I ain’t gon’ lie,” Muhammad muttered.

Sitting down beside him, head coach Lincoln Riley grinned.

“Me too,” Riley cracked.

The headache of a 43-41, barn-burning, triple-overtime victory over Arizona on Saturday night at the Coliseum, a win that pushed the limits of fan comprehension and answered no questions that have plagued the unbeaten Trojans for six games now, began light.

Began pounding, increasingly, with every blow from Arizona in the first half, freshman Noah Fifita overwhelmingly outdueling Caleb Williams in a 17-0 start in which USC’s secondary looked like Swiss cheese and the Wildcats’ offense like a butter knife.

Became a migraine, after Williams gutted his way through bruisings and batterings to drag tacklers into the end zone and drag USC to the red zone with mere seconds left in regulation of a 28-28 game – only for, improbably, a botched snap to make a mockery of what should have been a chip shot field goal to seal a USC win.

And then the mania ensued, three overtimes of back-and-forth scores in which ninth-ranked USC (6-0 overall, 4-0 Pac-12) and Arizona (3-3, 1-2) traded delirious punches before Williams took home a truly unhinged play-call for a two-point conversion and linebacker Mason Cobb stuffed a final Arizona attempt to at long last breathe.

“The intensity, man, that’s what we play football for, man,” Cobb said postgame, adrenaline still visibly coursing through his veins, speaking more in heart than coherent sentences. “Me personally, I don’t want to win by 40 points, I get bored. I want to, that grind, that (expletive) – sorry, excuse my language, that grit, man … there’s nothing like that.”

“My rib came out of place, somewhere in the second quarter,” Cobb casually dropped later.

Wait, what?

“Man, I love the pain of this game, and that’s what it’s about,” Cobb continued.

No man felt more pain on Saturday night than Williams, who looked against Arizona like Michael Jordan taking on the late-1980s Bad Boy Detroit Pistons, smothered and scattered and tossed aside spread eagle on the sidelines like a rag doll at one point in the first half. Wildcats blanketed him, a handful of yellow laundry flying for late hits on Williams, blanketed his receivers and frustrated USC’s passing game to a degree rarely seen in the Lincoln Riley era.

And as the offense stagnated, the defense withered, ceding a 17-0 lead and a massive edge in time of possession in a game that was incomprehensibly looking like a blowout after a second-quarter strip-sack of Williams. Saved, in a fell swoop, by little-utilized cornerback Jacobe Covington – making a start in place of the injured Domani Jackson – jumping a route for a massive momentum-changing interception that led directly to USC’s first score.

“That’s what allowed us to get back in it,” Riley said postgame, Covington cradling the team-bestowed game ball in his hands postgame like a newborn baby.

And as Arizona frequently sold out against the Air Raid – dollar packages of eight defensive backs seen often in the first half, and defensive ends frequently dropping back, as Williams pointed out postgame – USC’s quarterback adapted, as he so consistently has in two seasons as a Trojan.

He doesn’t like running, Williams smirked postgame. But he savvily directed Brenden Rice to block for him for a short run for the Trojans’ first touchdown, and in the fourth quarter, he became Hercules himself to push in a score from the 1-yard line: stuffed, somehow churning his feet and turning 360 degrees, physically dragging an Arizona defender barnacled to his back and extending to break the plane.

“They did a great job throughout the whole game, trying to get in my head and hit me after whistles or, you know, when the ball is away from me and things like that,” Williams said postgame. “And, you know, mental toughness. Keep fighting. Keep believing.”

They fought, indeed, back down the field to burn all but a couple of seconds of the clock with the score tied, setting up a 25-yard field goal for kicker Denis Lynch.

Except the snap was slightly high to holder Will Rose, and every member of USC’s special teams unit looked for a split-second like deer in headlights, and in a play that went mind-bogglingly wrong Lynch somehow ended up kicking air as the ball squibbed free.

As quickly as the stage seemed set for a brilliant spotlight on Williams’ grit, the curtain pulled for overtime and the stage looked set for a devastating loss, the defense continuing to take punch after punch in overtime.

Except Williams simply would not let USC lose, darting in for an 18-yard touchdown in the first overtime and capitalizing on one final stroke of delirium as the third overtime brought two-point-conversion tries. From the 3-yard line, USC’s entire offensive line skedaddled all the way to the left side of the field, leaving a few receivers surrounding tight end-turned-snapper Lake McRee.

The first time they’d run that formation in practice, receiver Tahj Washington said postgame, the defense didn’t recognize it. It seemed impossible any defense could, and as safety Calen Bullock kneeled on the sideline in a c’mon-you-gotta-get-this quasi-prayer, Williams darted in across the right corner of the goal line for the eventual game-winning conversion.

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

Now, it took surrendering 41 points, and a USC secondary incapable of slowing a Pac-12 opponent’s passing game for a second game in a row, to get there. But Cobb sealed one final, glorious stand; and postgame, Williams leaned into the microphone unprompted, a couple of games’ worth of visible frustration over questions surrounding the defense bubbling over.

“We wouldn’t have won that game without defense … so this whole, defense thing, our brothers, the score wouldn’t be 43-41 without ’em,” Williams said. “So, put it simply that way.”

There was no putting anything simply Saturday night, a game that left fans shell-shocked and Muhammad craving Ibuprofen. Riley, and players, made the point postgame – a lot of teams don’t win this one.

A lot of teams don’t quite find themselves in this one, though, too.

BY THE NUMBERS

Williams passed for 219 yards and accounted for four total touchdowns (three rushing) in addition to the winning conversion. He finished with 41 yards rushing. “Lanes kept opening up,” he said. “They kept dropping off. They left me with big lanes. I know I haven’t ran this year much. … But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.” … Fifita, a former Servite High star who had a huge block of family and friends in the stands, finished 25-of-35 for 313 yards and threw two of his five touchdown passes to Jacob Cowing in overtime. Cowing caught 10 passes for 87 yards and four TDs, and Jonah Coleman rushed for 143 yards. … USC remained unbeaten at the Coliseum under Riley, but the Trojans trailed for the first time this season before Williams helped them escape. “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.” … Cowing scored again to open the second overtime, but USC safety Calen Bullock swatted away Fifita’s pass on the two-point conversion attempt. Austin Jones then rushed for an 11-yard TD for USC, but Williams couldn’t hit Rice for the win. … Arizona committed 99 yards in penalties.

Mason Cobb seals it https://t.co/MiQByN2Hr7

— Luca Evans (@bylucaevans) October 8, 2023

No. 9 USC outlasts Arizona in triple OT to remain unbeaten. Highlights ⤵️@sproutsfm pic.twitter.com/9M8gN4Occk

— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) October 8, 2023

Caleb Williams after USC-Arizona: “They did a great job throughout the whole game trying to get in my head and hit me after whistles … mental toughness, keep fighting, keep believing.” pic.twitter.com/topgIvwBeU

— Luca Evans (@bylucaevans) October 8, 2023

Truly no more fitting postgame interview to USC-Arizona than Mason Cobb super-casually dropping that his rib popped out mid-game (he made the game-sealing triple-overtime tackle): pic.twitter.com/shvkH2TziK

— Luca Evans (@bylucaevans) October 8, 2023

Jacobe Covington got the game ball tonight for his interception, down 17-0, that Lincoln Riley said was a turning point in USC’s win over Arizona tonight (ft. random fire alarm activated): pic.twitter.com/BUjAhyLNeR

— Luca Evans (@bylucaevans) October 8, 2023

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