Provo • When BYU’s late, legendary football coach LaVell Edwards was asked once if he preferred speed or quickness in his wide receivers, he answered: “I’d like to have both, but if they had both, they’d be at the University of Southern California.”
Yes, yes they would. Yes, yes they are.
It was true 40 years ago, and it’s true now.
But there was no mention on that particular occasion of defense and focus and pluck and grit and will, none of the stuff that doesn’t completely show up on recruiting evaluations. No mention of Zack Wilson’s ability to run for a 16-yard touchdown, capping a late clutch 52-yard drive. No mention of a wall put up by the Cougars around the USC offense, slowing freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis and those great receivers that LaVell never could have landed. No mention of a pass tipped by Kavika Fonua into the arms of the Cougars’ Dayan Ghanwoloku for the win.
Saturday’s match between USC and BYU was a strange, wondrous one, indeed, a fistfight featuring four- and five-stars against two- and three-stars, the latter egged on by belief in themselves and a loud home crowd at the stadium named after the man who knew full well where the better talent was. It ended in a cartoonish cloud, at the center of which was the aforementioned interception by Ghanwoloku in overtime.
Final count: BYU 30, USC 27.
“I feel fortunate to get this win,” Kalani Sitake said, afterward. “It was a lot of fun. … Our guys are growing and getting better.”
So, they are.
“I’m glad we can win and learn,” he said.
“This team just keeps fighting and fighting,” said Ty’Son Williams.
So, it does.
Nowhere to start here, but at the beginning of that fight.
On the Trojans’ initial possession of the game, they flew down the field, looking every bit like the offense that beat Stanford last week, going up, 7-zip, with nothing but what seemed like open road in front of them.
And then … then, that road started to close. Slovis, the freshman QB who was nearly perfect against the Cardinal the week before in his first start, and was last seen leading the Trojan marching band with a smile and a sword, was intercepted twice, setting up a BYU touchdown and a field goal.
The Trojans scored 17 points in the first half against BYU’s 17, but the nature of the game was unalterably changed. Offense was evident, still, on both sides, but not in the drag-race fashion that earlier was everywhere. At some juncture between the lights on the Christmas tree firing and the back half of the strip, those attacks sputtered, and over long stretches blew engine parts all over the pavement.
The third quarter was the worst of it.
But the fourth quarter and overtime brought explosion after explosion.
First came an early SC touchdown on a 30-yard throw from Slovis to Michael Pittman, which capped a 92-yard drive by the Trojans. BYU responded with a drive for a field goal.
Over regulation’s final eight minutes, the punching intensified, with the Cougars overcoming a four-point deficit. They forced the Trojans to punt from their own 15-yard line, which handed Wilson an opportunity for a shot at glory.
He got it, scoring on that long TD run, giving BYU a 27-24 lead with 5:41 left. SC knotted the count at 27 via a field goal with a buck-forty-three remaining.
BYU converted its field goal, and Slovis threw his third pick. Game over.
The 18-year-old quarterback struggled, often, against BYU’s coverages. Coming into this game, the big question for the Cougars was … Should they throw extra resources into pressuring the young QB or should they drop those resources into the back end, attempting to slam shut whatever windows might be opened by gifted USC receivers such as Pittman, Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Mostly, BYU went with the latter.
And, mostly, it worked.
Somewhere, Utah’s coaches — bored by their game against Idaho State — were huddled up, taking hard notice of what USC can do and what it can’t, seeing that they’ll try to disrupt it on Friday night at the Coliseum in what’s amounting to a meaningful Pac-12 South showdown.
Two conclusions to draw from Saturday’s action, and a bonus one: 1) The Trojans are not as formidable as they looked against Stanford in their league opener, and 2) BYU is better than what some, present company included, presumed. This somewhat undermanned Cougars team is pretty damn good, worth watching and worthy of the storied opponents they are facing early this season. They may not be the better of most of them, but they can compete with them — and beat them.
One other conclusion: Utah will defeat the Trojans in the Coliseum, a feat they have not accomplished in past seasons. The Utes already downed BYU, and appear superior — if they tend to their business — to USC.
Here’s the thinking — if the Cougars can run for 131 yards on USC’s defensive front, what will Zack Moss do? Run forever, is what. If BYU’s defense can limit the Trojans to 27 points, to what will the Ute resistance hold them? Fewer, is what.
That’s for later.
For now, BYU celebrated its victory with gusto, fans emptying onto the field, hugging players, dancing in the late afternoon sun. The Cougars deserved to party. They’re better, they fight better, than most anybody thought.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.