No. 9 USC avoids disaster, beats Arizona 43-41 in 3OT

Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams rolls out during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Arizona Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

No. 9 USC showed some serious flaws in close road wins over Arizona State and Colorado the last two weeks. And when the Trojans returned home to face Arizona on Saturday night, those flaws nearly proved costly.

USC needed three overtimes to escape the Wildcats with a 43-41 win to remain undefeated ahead of next week’s trip to Notre Dame. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was downright ugly.

With the score tied 28-28 in the final minute of regulation, USC’s MarShawn Lloyd reeled off a big run down to the Arizona 6-yard line. With 24 seconds remaining, all the Trojans had to do was center the ball and kick a chip-shot field goal to escape with a win. They couldn’t do it.

USC inexplicably threw the ball on first down and the pass fell incomplete. On second down, there was a botched exchange between Caleb Williams and Lloyd and the ball ended up on the turf. Williams fell on it for a two-yard loss. With the clock ticking, USC scrambled to the line and ultimately called timeout with four seconds to go. Out came the field goal unit, and disaster struck. The snap was high and the operation had no chance, sending the game to overtime still tied at 28-28.

The teams traded touchdowns in the first overtime. USC scored first and Arizona quickly responded. Arizona coach Jedd Fisch had a chance to go for two and the win, but he kicked the extra point and sent the game to double-overtime.

Arizona opened with the ball in double-overtime and scored, but failed to convert the mandatory two-point conversion. After being pushed back by holding and false-start penalties, Williams got the Trojans back into the end zone. Fittingly, USC’s two-point try failed as well.

That set up triple-overtime and its wacky, two-point-conversions-only format. USC converted its try with Williams tiptoeing down the sideline and into the end zone. USC finally sealed the win when its defensive line surged through the Arizona front and stopped DJ Williams in the backfield.

USC fell behind 17-0 with sluggish start

The defensive stand capped off a comeback from the Trojans after an ugly beginning to the game.

Arizona was just the more focused team from the start. The Wildcats built a 17-0 lead by the early part of the second quarter, forcing Williams and the Trojans to play from behind.

USC’s defense has been leaky (to put it kindly) throughout Lincoln Riley’s tenure with the program, so this wasn’t a new scenario for Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. By halftime, Arizona’s lead was cut to 17-14 thanks to two Williams touchdowns — a four-yard run and a five-yard pass to Kyron Hudson with two seconds left in the half.

Arizona added to the lead with a field goal early in the third before the Trojans took their first lead of the ballgame on a Lloyd touchdown run. That score made it 21-20, and then the Trojans scored again to make it 28-20 with 12:54 to play.

Still a one-possession game, Arizona responded with Noah Fifita running the show. Making his second start in place of the injured Jayden De Laura, Fifita led a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive that culminated with a three-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Cowing on fourth down. A two-point conversion followed, and the score was tied at 28 apiece with 8:17 to play.

On the ensuing drive, the Arizona defense forced a three-and-out. All of a sudden, the Wildcats were in position to potentially win the game. They drove into USC territory, but stalled at the 33. Tyler Loop had a field goal try from 50 yards out, but missed to give the ball back to Williams and the Trojans.

What followed was that botched sequence at the end of regulation, three overtimes and a USC victory.

USC still undefeated, but has challenging schedule ahead

The Trojans are now 6-0 on the year and have all of their goals ahead of them. But the schedule is about to pick up in intensity.

A trip to Notre Dame is next week before a home game vs. No. 18 Utah. And then in November, the Trojans will host No. 7 Washington and travel to Eugene to face No. 8 Oregon.

With Williams at quarterback, the Trojans will always have a chance but questions about overall focus and the performance of the defense remain. Simply put, the Trojans need to play much better than they did on Saturday night to make it through that stretch unscathed.

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