Both Cougar and Trojan fans will have to wait until Saturday because no one knows for sure which team will emerge from the locker room at LaVell Edwards Stadium – the house that USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow helped build over 27 years as a BYU coach.
Chow maintains contacts and close associates at BYU from the program's glory years and he knows more about the internal goings-on than any other coach competing against the Cougars. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of this football team.
In Chow's first return appearance as a competing coach, you can bet he will have his more talented USC charges primed and prepared to bring their considerable "A" game to further enhance his image and reputation as an offensive coaching wizard. For reasons best left unsaid, this game represents redemption of sorts for Chow.
BYU's best chance of upsetting the Trojan apple cart is to revive its unrelenting, unorthodox and stifling defense that confused USC coaches and players last season. The difference is defensive specialist Pete Carroll has ample film and plenty of time to prepare for a game plan against the Cougars' 3-3-5 defensive scheme.
Still, there is reason for Cougar fans to hope. Notre Dame was woefully unprepared for the defensive onslaught they received Sept. 4, even though they had faced the same defense two games earlier in November last season. BYU fans are hoping the same happens to USC.
Like the Fighting Irish, the Trojans' strength is its powerfully effective defensive front seven.
In just three quarters during the first two games of the season, BYU was down to its third string quarterback because of injuries to the Cougars' top two signal callers.
Season starter John Beck returns to lead the Cougars, but with a Grade-Two shoulder separation, he will likely not be able to deliver his dangerous long ball with 100 percent efficiency. That's a small break for BYU because Beck's mobility, arm strength and vastly improved quarterback "smarts" make him a far more dangerous quarterback threat. His demonstrated this on the first two series' against Notre Dame when he scampered for first downs on separate third-down situations.
Backup Matt Berry will be ready to step in if Beck goes down to injury again. Berry, a two-year Cougar quarterback starter before he broke a bone in his throwing hand last season, is an accurate passer and reads defenses better than anyone among the Cougar quarterbacks. His biggest weakness is his lack of mobility – evidenced by four Notre Dame sacks in two-and-a-half quarters. Berry was sidelined after the third play in the Stanford game with a hand injury.
JC transfer Jason Beck and Jackson Brown, the scout team quarterback, are the third and fourth options. Jason Beck was both hot and very cold in last week's loss to the Cardinal.
Junior tailback starter Naufahi Tahi starts at tailback, but is closer to a fullback in speed and power. He has scored two touchdowns in the Cougars' first two games. Tahi is more of a power runner and his decided strength and added value is as an excellent backfield pass blocker.
Sophomore Curtis Brown and true freshman Raymond Hudson are probably BYU's best game-breaking threats at the position, but Brown has been stymied by excellent defenses during the first two weeks. Brown will likely see as many game snaps as Tahi and he possesses better speed. Converted freshman wide receiver Bryce Mahuika shores up the running back ranks, but is clearly more valuable as a kick returner on special teams.
Only one 2003 starter, sophomore Jake Kuresa at right tackle, is confirmed currently starts. The other preseason starter, sophomore Eddie Keele at left tackle, played only the first series' of the Notre Dame game. He left that game because of concerns about chest pains and the possibility it might be related to a pre-existing heart condition. Keele has been cleared by doctors, but it is not certain how much game time he will see. Alternating with him are freshman R.J. Willing or junior Gary McGiven, who rarely played before this season.
Scott Young, the only senior lineman, starts at right guard, but is inexperienced. A converted defensive lineman, the Notre Dame game was the first time Young had ever played on the offensive line.
Brian Sanders, a junior left guard, started his first game last week replacing sophomore Ofa Mohetau, who is redshirting this season to focus on academics.
The least experienced starter on BYU's offensive line is junior center Lance Reynolds, Jr., a converted linebacker who ate himself out of the position. Lingering fall camp problems about bad center-QB snaps reared his ugly head last week during the Fighting Irish game.
Sophomore Daniel Coats heads a young tight end group with true freshman Dennis Pitta and sophomore Jeremy Gillespie as his immediate backups. Coats' has game-breaking abilities with excellent pass-catching skills that were impressive against the Trojans last year. His blocking has improved considerably. Highly regarded freshman Phil Niu from 2003 is redshirting because of injury.
Unquestionably the biggest upgrade in the entire BYU team was at wide receiver where coaches signed seven outstanding wideouts from the JC and high school ranks. The top two among them played prominent roles in BYU's upset win over Notre Dame – JC All-American transfer Todd Watkins and true freshman Austin Collie. Watkins' brother Travis is a USC offensive lineman.
Both Watkins and Collie are legitimate game-breaking threats but have been frustrated somewhat with the quarterback tribulations because they haven't been able to get the pigskin to them when they have been wide open.
Of the returning veterans, only senior Jason Kukahiko, junior Rod Wilkerson and junior Chris Hale play regularly in the rotation.
Another dynamic true freshman waiting to break out is Antwaun Harris, who backs up Kukahiko. Evidence of how deep the Cougars are at this position is the lack of fan and coach's consternation when news broke two weeks ago that two outstanding JC receiver transfers – Michael Morris and Joe Griffin – would redshirt because of injuries.
Other excellent receivers to watch for include JC transfer Riley Weber, freshman Matt Allen and sophomore Matt Smith.
BYU's formidable starting defensive ends Shaun Nua and Manaia Brown are both strong and very disruptive for offensive linemen. They are joined by Hala Paongo, started the first two games because of a lingering injury recovery to regular starter Daniel Marquardt.
This trio is backed up capably by JC All-American transfer Vince Feula at defensive tackle; and John Denney, Justin Carlson-Maddux, Michael Marquardt, Judd Anderton and T.J. Sitake at defensive end.
Their vital function of the defensive line is to draw double teams from offensive lineman so Cougar linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks can blitz through wide open gaps without signaling to the Stanford quarterback where they are coming from. Sounds pretty easy to game plan and defend against? Think again.
And should the Trojan linemen attempt to take on BYU's front three one-on-one, they will lose that battle most of the time.
What was supposed to be the Cougars' most glaring defensive weakness with the departure of all three starters from 2003 is now actually one of the team's strengths. Huh?
Middle linebacker Cameron Jensen, a sophomore, has already been proclaimed by some knowledgeable insiders as one who will emerge as BYU's best-ever middle backer!
Playing alongside him is this week's Mountain West Conference Player of the Week Brady Poppinga, a senior, who single-handedly terrorized Notre Dame's offensive plans with a game-high 12 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery and 3 quarterback hurries. Enough said.
On Jensen's other side is JC First Team All-American transfer Justin Luettgerodt. His impressive no-name co-starter is freshman Markell Staffieri. Both Luettgerodt and Staffieri are sure and solid tacklers.
Cougarback Aaron Francisco, a four-year starter, is one of BYU's most consistent defensive standouts and the team's most ferocious hitter. He led the team in tackles last season and is to Bronco Mendenhall's secondary what Chicago Bears All-Pro Brian Urlacher was for Mendenhall when he played at New Mexico. Those who challenge him head-on usually pay the price.
Starting katbacks John Burbidge, a senior, and junior Spencer White are solid, particularly Burbidge who was one of the Cougars' defensive stars against the Irish last week.
Sixth-year senior Brandon Heaney is an excellent shut-down corner for the Cougars when he is healthy. The good news for the Cougars is he is 100 percent healthy.
Heaney's companion on the other side is BYU track star speedster Nathan Soelberg, a junior. He has excellent leaping abilities and no receiver he faces this year will outrun this 4.2/40 speedster.
Overall, BYU's first team defensive unit is very solid, but is suspect in several positions when it comes to quality depth.
Senior BYU kicker Matt Payne impressed USC fans last year and had a superb All-American caliber game against Notre Dame. He was not as dominant last week against Stanford, but if his directional punt-game is on, he becomes a major offensive weapon for the Cougars.
BOTTOM LINE: Saturday night's matchup between the Cougars and the heavily favored Trojans will be decided by defense and turnover margins. Whoever wins those critical areas wins the game.
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