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At USC, possibly the most fever-dreamy spring game ever unfolded

Caleb Williams, who now plays for USC after transferring from Oklahoma, was the subject of a sign-of-the-times out on the concourse on Saturday. (Chuck Culpepper/The Washington Post)
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LOS ANGELES — Imagine sitting in the stands absorbing sunburn at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on a Saturday in April only 196 days after sitting in the press box at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where that D.C. guy Caleb Williams steered Oklahoma through the Oklahoma-Texas hostilities along a screaming 54-48 trail. Imagine the sky not just cloudless but that art form of cloudless, L.A. cloudless, and the old clock hands of the 99-year-old coliseum reading about quarter past noon, the old temperature gauge on the other side of the grand facade nudging past 70 but nowhere near 80.

Now, as Southern California plays Southern California in the spring game, here’s a snippet from the public address announcer:

“Caleb Williams on the keeper …”

It’s an epitome of transfer-era reality and some sort of fever dream.

Spring football, that eccentric pursuit amid the broader eccentric pursuit known as college football, concluded across much of the land this past weekend with public scrimmage games, and the most fever-dreamy spring game must have been USC vs. USC.

Lincoln Riley, so familiar with Oklahoma, coached for USC, vaguely familiar under his visor while apparently salaried at USC. Williams played for USC after transferring from Oklahoma and, while not salaried technically, was the subject of a sign-of-the-times out on the concourse: “EXCLUSIVE CALEB WILLIAMS APPAREL AVAILABLE HERE.” Running back Travis Dye also played for USC, meaning the quarterback who went 21 for 27 for the winner in the Alamo Bowl less than four months earlier (Williams, Oklahoma) and the running back who rushed for 153 yards for the loser (Dye, Oregon) share a backfield at neither Oklahoma nor Oregon.

How 2022.

Just to go full fever dream after the game, onto the field stepped the greatest football player ever, Jerry Rice, here because …

His son Brenden plays for USC.

Brenden Rice, like Williams and Dye and 10 others, transferred in, meaning the Trojans have transfers from TCU, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Virginia, Auburn, Stanford, Alabama, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma.

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“It’s a little shock for me,” Dye said, “because I was getting flashbacks to when I was in this Coliseum before,” such as the time he gained 55 yards and caught a four-yard touchdown pass for Oregon against USC in the 2020 Pac-12 title game or when he gained 75 yards in a happy 56-24 thumping in 2019, another time just ducky.

That’s different from Williams, who followed Riley here and who threw two touchdown passes Saturday to Mario Williams, who also followed Riley here, meaning a 19-year-old who hopscotched from D.C. to Norman to Los Angeles throwing to another 19-year-old who hopscotched from Tampa to Norman to Los Angeles.

“That communication with ’Rio,” Caleb Williams said, “as we all know it goes back to the old school that we were at.”

Now in the fever dream their country needs them — and their communication — because they might have a chance to lend some geographic variety to a College Football Playoff that has gone sort of stale with three of eight title games between Alabama and Clemson and two more between Alabama and Georgia, making national championships seem less national.

Come surreal Saturday, the crowd size did seem blasé early. It didn’t seem to match the fervor reputed since Riley’s stunning sign-on Nov. 28, and it didn’t seem a threat to fulfill a parlor game and match the lowest home-game total of the regular season during the forlorn 4-8 of last season, that being a scattered 51,564 for a 45-27 loss to Oregon State.

But in they trickled and at times maybe even gushed, 33,427 of them, at least somewhat a tell of how excitement can build in America when one guy from Muleshoe moves from Oklahoma to California. (That’s Riley, with Muleshoe in Texas, near the New Mexico border.)

In one fevered moment, Athletic Director Mike Bohn appeared on the big screen midgame and said, “You’re part of what we believe to be the largest crowd in spring ball history, since the 1990s.” It did not rate with the 40,000 or so for the nongame up at Oregon on Saturday or the 75,000 or so for the nongame at Oklahoma, but this is Los Angeles, famously rich in options and famously indifferent to non-winners.

So the people who weren’t elsewhere dug into boxes of jerseys and whatnot at a surplus sale on the concourse, with one man reporting 30 percent savings over the norm even if jerseys in general have never been more fleeting. They made a thick passage of a section behind one side of the stadium between some taco stands and some restrooms. They ordered from food trucks such as the Lebanese Pickles and Peas, or they sat watching in their old jerseys of Lynn Swann, Ronnie Lott, Marcus Allen, Reggie Bush — shirts that say from the audience, “You really should win.”

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In a helmet with Trojan feathering makeshift on top, there walked that rare kind of USC fan: a recently gained one. Miguel Cervantes has an excuse for that: He’s in USC’s masters business program for veterans. He feels “super pumped” and said, “I can feel the energy difference coming from last year to this year — a huge change.”

Down on the field after halftime, quarterback Miller Moss, a redshirt freshman from Los Angeles who has not transferred, threw a pretty 48-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Ford, a redshirt junior from greater Los Angeles who has not transferred.

Eventually players signed autographs on the field and went down the tunnel to the interview dais, five of them at one point, shoulder to shoulder and including three transfers, Caleb Williams and Dye and Shane Lee, a former Alabama linebacker who said, “It’s been amazing to see the progress since I got here.”

As they spoke, a mind long addled with college football might struggle to remember where all they had been, a most kinetic generation and all the wiser for it. When they speak of building a culture, they’re talking rapid construction. “We’ve worked our [rear] off the last 4½ months,” Riley said while still 38 himself, “to build a culture and to build a standard for our program that we believe in.” He noted they would need more players inbound, but he said: “The point really has to be understood: The guys that we have right now have set the foundation. The guys that we have right now we are thrilled about.”

Once Riley departed the room, Caleb Williams went on about culture for impressive paragraphs rather than throwaway lines, his voice now old enough for all to hear (unlike as a freshman under interview restrictions at Oklahoma). He said, “A big part of it is being coachable, and sometimes you’ve just got to eat it,” and he explained how “elite teams are led by the players, held accountable by the players.”

They have the leadership council thing going, such that Moss said: “Just as someone who was here last year and went through that, I don’t think we lacked the players and the personalities within the locker room to have good leadership. I just think there wasn’t a forum that fostered leadership. I think with Coach Riley and his staff coming in, we’ve been given a playbook so to speak on how to do that and structure within that.”

Maybe they, like Oregon or Utah or somebody fresh, will up and help out the country at large. Spring games always do brim with dreams, however confusing.

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