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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Ryan Kartje

Caleb Williams eager to lead USC in Cotton Bowl: 'I want to play with my guys'

ARLINGTON, Texas — His limp would linger long after USC's Pac-12 title game heartbreak, the pain in his left hamstring a lasting reminder of all that was lost that night in Las Vegas. In the weeks that followed, his coach would caution about the significance of his injury, laying the groundwork for the quarterback to bow out of a bowl game, which, on paper, meant little in the grand scheme of a terrific turnaround season.

Yet to Caleb Williams, there was never a question. USC's Heisman Trophy winner had assured — and reassured — in the aftermath of the loss to Utah that he'd return, and on Sunday morning, his coach would finally confirm his quarterback's plans to play against Tulane in the Cotton Bowl on Monday.

"He's ready to play," Lincoln Riley said. "He's progressed maybe a little faster than what we anticipated. Certainly very fortunate on our part that we had the opportunity to have a month before this game. Had it been even two weeks, I doubt he'd be available."

Williams, though, never allowed that doubt to creep in. All month, Riley and his staff had preached finishing strong, preparing for the bowl much in the same way the Trojans would any other game. They tried to articulate how critical it was to end on a high note.

"Coach Riley has said all of bowl prep that we want this game to be representative of our journey together, up through the last 11 months," USC left tackle Bobby Haskins said. "It's a way to go out the way we want to, to have this team be remembered the way we want it to be remembered."

For USC's quarterback, that sentiment rang especially true. A year ago, Williams faced a similar situation in the wake of Riley's departure from Oklahoma. He could've chosen to preserve his health and enter the transfer portal early. Instead, he finished out his freshman season with the Sooners in the Alamo Bowl.

He has even less to prove this season, after winning the Heisman and carrying USC to the brink of the College Football Playoff. Sitting out never crossed his mind.

"It's the same thing for me," Williams said. "I want to play with my guys. We've been through these past 12 months together, and we'll finish it together."

It has been a while since USC could say it finished the season on a high note. The Trojans' last bowl victory came six years ago in its thrilling Rose Bowl win over Penn State. They haven't played in a bowl since 2019, when Iowa dominated them in the Holiday Bowl.

That's the only bowl experience from which Nick Figueroa can draw. The distinction between that trip and this one has been stark, the redshirt senior defensive end said.

"It almost felt then like, 'Oh, we're playing in the third-seeded bowl for our conference,' " Figueroa said. "I don't know if guys had the same type of intent with the approach to practice. It's been good to have the approach we've had to this game."

The stage certainly seemed set for another letdown, after the crushing loss to Utah kept USC out of the CFP. Yet players insist they've put the disappointment of that defeat behind them.

"I think there's still everything on the table for us to prove," safety Bryson Shaw said.

Nothing about their last performance has sat well with USC's defense. The criticism of defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has crystallized that frustration.

"We feel like we've let him down," Shaw said. "We really want to set the tone for next season and end this season right for him."

Tulane won't make it easy. Like USC, its season has been defined by its stunning progress, as coach Willie Fritz took a two-win team and turned it into an 11-win outfit in one season. Unlike the Trojans, the Green Wave has a chance to make a serious statement by upending a Power Five team.

Any such upset probably would require a heavy dose of Tulane running back Tyjae Spears, who scored 17 times this season, or a standout performance from quarterback Michael Pratt, who accounted for 35 touchdowns while having only five passes intercepted. Both will be difficult matchups for a USC defense that has given up 1,354 yards over its last three games.

Conversely, Tulane hasn't faced a quarterback of Williams' caliber. Fritz compared him Sunday to Kansas City Chiefs superstar Patrick Mahomes.

His presence alone should help set the tone for USC on Monday in the Trojans' first New Year's Six appearance since December 2017.

When asked if the momentum of a bowl win really means much of anything heading into the offseason, Riley admitted it was probably negligible.

"It's a great thing, certainly, for this team and a chance to close out a great season," Riley said. "If we don't win the game, then — we've had years when we didn't win a playoff game, and we came back, and were right back in it the next year. So I think next year's team will be next year's team.

"I think this is about this year's team. But hopefully, we can take this as steps. We've got to see this as a journey ourselves from the day we started."

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