Following a chaotic week for USC football as a whole, a competitive BYU team should not be overlooked amidst building hype surrounding the team and a whirlwind of breaking news. After a dominant 45-20 win against no. 23 Stanford last week, the Trojans find themselves ranked no. 24 heading into this week’s game against the Cougars. While the Cardinal were without several key players, including starting quarterback K.J. Costello, the quality of the performance for the Trojans on both sides of the ball put the national media on notice and has the fanbase ecstatic. BYU finds itself coming off a gutsy 29-26 win versus the Tennesse Volunteers after a game winning touchdown by Ty’Son Williams in a Double OT slugfest. With both teams riding a wave of positive momentum, here are the keys to the game for a Trojan victory against the Cougars.
Keep it consistent away from the Coliseum
The Trojans leave the newly renovated Coliseum for the first time this season as they travel to LaVell Edwards Stadium to play the Cougars on their home turf. This presents a new challenge for the star freshman contributors on the team. Defensive back Chris Steele, defensive lineman Drake Jackson, and quarterback Kedon Slovis are a few of the Trojans who will get their first taste of the cacophony and heckling of an opposing fanbase. Slovis in particular has to manage the noise of the Cougar fans, keeping his composure in the pocket and communicating with the rest of his offense effectively despite the added distractions. After lighting up Stanford for 377 yards and 3 TDs while throwing only 5 incompletions, Slovis has to prove he is not a one hit wonder on the road. For the rest of the team, the key will be keeping the energy and effort high without the added benefit of a home crowd to feed off of.
More of the same on offense
Graham Harrell’s Air Raid offense has paid off dividends for the Trojans in the first two games of the season. As mentioned, Kedon Slovis’ first full game in the offense was nothing short of spectacular. Many in the fanbase and the media have already made comparisons between Slovis and former USC star and current Jets starter Sam Darnold due to their shared background as backups who became stars in their debuts. While much of that sentiment may be premature, what is undeniable is that the revamped passing attack has opened up the offense. While the passing statistics are obvious, the run game has also been strong for USC in both games with the talented duo of Vavae Malepaei and Stephen Carr putting up a combined 5 rushing touchdowns on a modest but effective 265 yards on the ground. BYU was absolutely gashed on the ground against Utah and Tennessee, giving up 262 and 242 yards respectively. Expect USC’s talented backs to have a field day if their numbers are called early and often in the game. On the other hand if Graham Harrell keeps the offense pass heavy in a manner similar to the Stanford game, USC also has a decisive advantage. The Cougars only have 1 sack over their first two games and have failed to consistently pressure the quarterback. We have seen that giving Kedon Slovis time to find the open receiver in a clean pocket has been a recipe for disaster for opposing defenses. In other words, the Trojans just need to stay consistent and stick to their strengths and they should have a great chance to score points in bunches and win the game.
Shut out the outside noise
The storylines coming out of the USC football program have been relentless following the Stanford win. Most notably, athletic director Lynn Swann resigned in a move that was widely expected but much sooner than many had anticipated. After a tumultuous tenure leading the program, Swann leaves the Trojans with major questions about the job security of their head coach. In 2018 Swann handed head coach Clay Helton an extension through 2023, but his departure makes it more evident than ever that Helton is coaching for his job on a game-to-game basis. In addition, 2018 4-star receiver Devon Williams is just the latest Trojan to enter the transfer portal after expressing concerns over a lack of touches. Despite all of the organizational turnover, the team has played well thus far — earning themselves a no. 24 ranking in the latest AP poll. It is imperative for the coaches and players to tune out all of the external chaos and lock in on the challenge immediately in front of them in BYU. Moreover, after a great showing against Stanford the Trojans must avoid buying into the hype and prepare for a competitive BYU team. Judging from the soundbites coming out of practice, the Trojans appear to be laser-focused on the task at hand and hopefully that shows on the field.
Contain the Cougar passing attack
Zach Wilson presents a unique challenge for the Trojan defense and shutting him and the passing game of the Cougars down should be a priority. While his statistics have looked uninspiring thus far this season, with 232 yards and 1 TD against Tennessee and 208 yards with 2 INTs against Utah, he is a mobile QB with a penchant for big plays in key moments. Specifically, against Utah Wilson rushed the ball 8 times for 43 yards — and the Fresno State game week 1 demonstrated that the Trojan defense has difficulty containing and bringing down quarterbacks that have the ability to tuck the ball and run or extend plays by scrambling. Moreover, Wilson had a massive 65-yard strike to receiver Miles Simon to set up the field goal that would save the game and send it into overtime. Locking down Wilson and limiting this big play ability will be a decisive factor in the outcome of the game. Given big performances from defensive backs Olaijah Griffin and Greg Johnson with 4 pass deflections and an interception respectively last week, the secondary needs to build off that performance and shut down the Cougar receivers to win the game.