I know, this is not a logical and expected conclusion after watching the Trojans dismantle, destroy and disawow the potent sixth-ranked Tigers by a shocking 23-0 score at Auburn yesterday in front of 86,063 stunned fans.
In fact, here is the first of my 13 preseason predictions published Aug. 27, revisited in black and white:
1. “The BYU-USC game will determine whether the BYU football team goes 11-1 or 9-3 this season.
“Contrary to all logical reasoning and deductive thinking, my crystal ball predicts a six-point upset by the Cougars in the Coliseum on Sept. 6. The BYU defense and Matt Payne’s golden boot delivers the win in front of a stunned Trojan crowd of more than 80,000 people. Look for Bronco Mendenhall’s defense to create all kinds of havoc to a stammering and stumbling USC quarterback who doesn’t know what hit him.
“Specifically, the combination of a healthy Brady Poppinga and C.J. Ah You on opposite defensive ends and the deceptive power and quickness of Manaia Brown, Daniel Marquardt and Ifo Pili up the middle will consume the Trojan’s offensive line focus – allowing the Cougar secondary and linebackers to disrupt Norm Chow’s offensive game plan enough for a Cougar victory.
The Cougar upset can be attributed, in large measure, to the Trojans’ preseason preoccupation and preparation for Top 5 ranked Auburn on the road. Six days of BYU-specific preparation will NOT be enough time to counter’s Mendenhall’s game plan for USC, unleashed with a lot of new looks and wrinkles not seen in the Georgia Tech game.”
The only change I will make, apart from reducing BYU’s winning margin to three points, is I expect a near sellout over 90,000-plus in Los Angeles. USC enters the game the consensus favorite of everyone, including most of the Utah media. Anyone with half a brain (which reveals a lot about me) has to go with the Trojans. Additionally, they will have a Top five ranking in both the Associated Press (writers) and USAToday/ESPN (coaches) polls released on Monday.
Quite simply, the devastation USC laid on Auburn – considered the nation’s No. 1 team by some publications and perhaps the strongest Tigers team in the last 10 years with no apparent weaknesses – was overwhelmingly impressive, decisive and downright scary for all Cougar fans.
USC has won nine games in a row dating to last season. They forced three turnovers and limited the run-oriented Tigers, one of the nation’s most touted rushing attacks, to 1.2 yards per carry, only 43 rushing yards and 164 yards of total offense. The Trojans, led by their veteran defensive line, sacked Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell six times.
On paper, BYU is not even on the same level playing field as the Trojans. But that’s when the Cougars are at their most dangerous. One thing in BYU’s favor is regardless of what the Trojan coaches say to their players, they and most USC fans will enter the game overconfident. The experts, coupled with the underlying feelings and emotions of all, will convincingly and logically articulate BYU does not have the size, speed, strength, depth and athleticism of Auburn – and they would be right.
Only Trojan offensive coordinator Norm Chow and quarterback coach Steve Sarkisian, both BYU football alumni that played pivotal roles in leading BYU’s last great team to a 14-1 season in 1996 with an upset of Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl (2001 season included), truly understand how dangerous BYU can be right now.
Comparing BYU’s ugly win over a widely disrespected Georgia Tech team and USC’s lopsided defeat of Auburn will only increase the betting line in Las Vegas as the game draws closer. USC will be at home playing before an admiring and mightily loud partisan crowd.
KEYS TO THE GAME FOR BYU:
• TIME OF POSSESSION (POS): Overall, BYU must do exactly what it did against Georgia Tech and control the clock in critical times. Against the Yellow Jackets, the Cougars held the ball 39:06 minutes compared with 20:54 for Georgia Tech. However, it is important for BYU to NOT duplicate the pattern where GT matched or controlled the clock in the first (BYU 7:44 – GT 7:16) and third quarters (GT 7:41 – BYU 7:19) to begin both halves. Where Georgia Tech was relatively neutralized, USC will hammer the ball down the Cougars throat with their offensive line as their most powerful weapon and a pair of running backs in Reggie Bush and Hershel Dennis (part-Samoan, by the way) who will definitely move the chains.
• SPECIAL TEAMS: BYU cannot afford to give up any points on special teams. Coach Paul Tidwell’s unit must give Matt Payne the time to get his punts off and Payne has to come through with great boomers and well placed kicks. Nothing short of near perfection in this area is mandated for BYU to stay in the game. Payne’s boot will win the game and he must be at his best All-American form.
• “GO FOR IT, DAVID!” Kick returner David Christensen inexplicably and repeatedly put a knee down on at least three occasions when the Georgia Tech special teams had not even reached his 20 yard line! Christensen is a sure-handed receiver and ball-control runner and he needs to create some excitement and momentum with mad dashes over 20 yards for possible scoring opportunities in these situations. He was extremely effective and elusive when he ran the ball out of the end zone. This special team unit must also be on their game Saturday.
• Sophomore quarterback Matt Berry must be fearless and have the game of his young college career. In his outing against Georgia Tech, he hit on 31 completions out of 46 attempts with one interception for 276 yards. His defensive teammates will keep the game within striking distance going into the 4th quarter. If he’s having a bad day, all bets are off. Berry and his complete receiver group – running backs, tight ends and wide receivers – must control the clock with a more balanced, unpredictable offensive game plan. Virtually every play out of the shotgun was a pass with only one play action fake.
• More importantly, one of Berry’s obvious areas of needed improvement is not to telegraph which receiver he is looking to throw to. A number of BYU fans noted this and you can bet the USC coaches, and therefore opposing players, will be looking for it as well. Berry is very accurate with unusual throwing mechanics that lowers his body a few inches every time he throws. It works, but it looks like something a good quarterback coach might work on eliminating to utilize his full 6-5 height advantage, especially later in the NFL.
• BYU MUST EFFECTIVELY USE ITS MULTI-DIMENSIONAL PASS-CATCHING OPTIONS: The Cougars must capitalize on this. In the Georgia Tech game, Berry completed passes to eight different receivers – two tight ends (10 completions for 113 yards to Daniel Coats and Justin Jory); two running backs (six completions for 12 yards to Naufahu Tahi and Taufui Vakapuna); and four receivers (15 completions for 147 yards to Toby Christensen, Chris Hale, Rod Wilkerson and Jason Kukahiko).
• PASS CONTROL OFFENSE: Against Georgia Tech, BYU had 14 passing first downs compared to six rushing. USC, however, will be much tougher to run against and Crowton, Bosco and Bradford must game plan a strategy that maximizes BYU’s strengths. Additionally, the insertion of back up quarterback John Beck into the game should not be predetermined at a critical time that could impact the momentum of the game. Crowton should plan for it and make the move when the right circumstances and conditions occur.
• FOURTH DOWN CONVERSIONS: BYU head coach Gary Crowton has not changed his gambling ways. Against Georgia Tech, it was a good thing. The Cougars successfully converted all three fourth down attempts that resulted in two touchdown passes and a missed 20-yard field goal by Matt Payne that should have been automatic. Last year when Crowton was lambasted for his 25 percent success ratio in fourth down conversions (5 of 20), it seemed like acts of desperation from a coach who did not have full confidence in his defense. Against Georgia Tech, he had a defense everyone has confidence in, yet he still called three fourth down attempts. The first: 4-3 with 5:07 in the first quarter, was a Berry touchdown pass to tight end Daniel Coats for 38 yards and BYU’s first touchdown. The second: 4-1 in the second quarter with running back Naufahi Tahi lunging for a first down by a fingernail, kept a 19-play, 9:07 minute BYU possession alive. That series ended with an unusual missed 20-yard field goal attempt by Payne. The third: 4-1 in the third quarter was a Berry pass to fullback Taufui Vakapuna good for four yards. The series ended with a Berry 14-yard touchdown pass to receiver Toby Christensen. The series consumed 3:31 of the clock in nine-play and 43 yards.
• THIRD DOWN CONVERSION RATIO MUST IMPROVE: The Cougars converted on just 7-18 third down attempts. This is either a factor of poor play calling or bad execution. Either way, BYU must improve on this statistical category if they hope to upset USC.
• DEFENSIVE LINE PRESSURE: For BYU to upset USC, they must control the line of scrimmage in the trenches. Running backs Hershel Dennis and super freshman Reggie Bush cannot be allowed to run rampant through the defensive line. Though they should be credited for plugging the middle against Georgia Tech, BYU's defensive line did not put nearly enough pressure on the Yellow Jackets true freshman quarterback Reggie Ball throughout the game. Statistically, the Cougar defensive front recorded only one sack by Brady Poppinga in the entire game. The entire line (defensive tackles and ends combined) accounted for only four tackles and assisted on five others. USC’s defensive line domination of Auburn ballyhooed offensive line and running game was the main reason for their stunning shutout of the Tigers. DE John Denney led all Cougars with one tackle and assisted on three others. USC quarterback Matt Leinert is far less mobile than Ball and BYU’s middle front of Daniel Marquardt, Ifo Pili and Manaia Brown must plug the middle and force Leinert and the USC running game to the edge’s where they are more vulnerable against defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall’s 3-3-5 aggressive defense.
• OFFENSIVE LINE PROTECTION: BYU’s young and relatively inexperienced offensive line did better than most expected, even if they gave up four sacks in the Georgia Tech game. It is imperative they improve their pass protection against a stronger and quicker USC defensive line. For his part, Matt Berry must look to get his passes off quicker in the pocket, effective use his roll outs at pivotal times and avoid his tendency to look for the longer pass, bypassing open receivers that are closer. The OL must learn from their miscues and miscommunications in the Georgia Tech game.
• BYU’s DEFENSIVE SECONDARY: The Cougar senior linebackers and defensive secondary are the strength of the defense. An upset of USC begins and ends with them as they unleash unexpected looks and formations on the Trojans quarterback and powerful offensive line. In the Georgia tech game, middle linebacker Mike Tanner led all defenders with five solo tackles and four assists, followed by cornerback Jon Burbidge and Cougarback Aaron Francisco who each had six solo or assists combined each. Others who must contribute significantly include Jernaro Gilford, Kip Nielsen, Levi Madarieta, Colby Bockwoldt and Chad Barney.
• INJURY IMPACT: BYU will face USC without key starters Brandon Heaney (cornerback) and Marcus Whalen (running back), the Cougars main running back. In addition, the other starting corner, Jernaro Gilford, will be wearing a soft cast after injuring his wrist in the Georgia Tech game. Defensive tackle Manaia Brown still has not fully recovered from recent shoulder surgery, but should still play significant minutes in the USC game.
• DEFENSIVE BLANKET AROUND USC WIDE RECEIVERS MIKE WILLIAMS AND KEARY COLBERT: BYU's defensive secondary must play their "A" game in Los Angeles to limit the effectiveness of USC's potent 1-2 wide receiver combination. The 6-5 Williams was a consensus All-American last year as a true freshman. He can't be stopped, but the Cougars must limit the damage these two will create.
• SURE TACKLING: In the final analysis, BYU must tackle well consistently against the speedier Trojan skill players. Though BYU cannot shut down USC’s offense, they must limit the damage with excellent gang tackling and demonstrate the same swarm defense they showed against Georgia Tech. At least three Yellow Jackets turnovers were the direct result of much-improved BYU tackling and ball-stripping. BYU defenders must continue this for them to shift momentum in this game, while at the same time limiting their own turnovers.
• DANIEL COATS Enough said.
• THE BOTTOM LINE: You can bet most of the BYU Cougar players and coaches watched USC embarrass Auburn on Saturday. You can also bet they will be determined not to allow the Trojans to do the same to them.
You heard it here first: BYU by three.
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