ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Caleb Williams said he wasn’t limited by a hamstring injury that plenty of people thought would keep the Heisman Trophy winner out of the Cotton Bowl.
To that point, the Southern California quarterback said he should have run with an open field in front of him on a play where he threw an interception. The pick gave Tulane an early spark in the Green Wave’s 46-45 victory Monday.
A late safety from an offense that didn’t punt gave No. 14 Tulane the opening to finish a frantic rally, and the same defense that gave up an 87-yard touchdown pass right after Williams’ pick couldn’t get the final stop.
It was the second time this season Williams watched the decisive score from the sideline, with little or no time to do anything about it.
“Always like the ball in my hands with the offense and me out there,” Williams said. “But I also like my defense being out there. They’ve had games where they’ve stopped people multiple times for us to be able to go and put up points.”
The eighth-ranked Trojans (11-3) wouldn’t have needed points if they’d managed to stop Tulane late. Instead, USC had to settle for tying the biggest turnaround in school history when Alex Bauman caught a 6-yard pass with 9 seconds remaining.
USC hired coach Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma after going 4-8 last season, and Williams soon followed as a transfer. The Green Wave (12-2) handed Riley his first loss in six games at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
Leading by eight with four minutes to go, the Trojans were on their 1-yard line after Mario Williams muffed a kickoff out of bounds. Austin Jones was stopped for no gain on the first play, then dropped in the end zone on the second.
The Green Wave converted two fourth downs on the 66-yard drive to the winning points. Bauman’s catch was ruled incomplete, but replay showed him hanging on to the ball and keeping it off the ground as he and linebacker Eric Gentry rolled over on the tackle.
“We obviously put ourselves in phenomenal position to get it done and then all three sides right there at the end with the dropped kickoff and the safety and then not getting the stops we needed defensively down the stretch,” Riley said. “All three sides contributed to it.”
Williams injured his hamstring in the 47-24 loss to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game, which kept USC out of the four-team College Football Playoff.
With a national championship no longer a consideration and the school having announced that Williams had a significant injury, the focus appeared to turn to next season and presumably Williams’ final run at the CFP before turning pro. The 20-year-old sophomore is not yet eligible to enter the NFL draft.
Williams chose to play in USC’s first Cotton Bowl in 28 years, and was even among the five players who handled laterals on a desperate final play from inside the USC 15 with the clock expired.
“It’s going to linger,” Williams said. “You lose the last game of the season, go into the offseason, burns. Don’t have another game after. It’s going to burn.”
Williams said he would do his part, recruiting and otherwise, to help the Trojans improve the roster. Clearly the focus will be on defense after USC gave up 305 yards rushing, the fifth time this season it has allowed at least 500 total yards.
“We know the areas that we have to get better,” Riley said. “We didn’t come here for a one-year deal. This one hurts, but it gives complete clarity on what we need to do next.”
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