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Trojans looking for national title

A loss to Cougars could sink USC’s chances to be No. 1

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Never mind that Saturday marks Southern California offensive coordinator Norm Chow's reunion with his former team, BYU.

For No. 4 USC, that is merely an intriguing subplot when it hosts the Cougars (6 p.m., Ch. 4).

The Trojans, who produced an 11-2 record, a No. 4 final ranking, an Orange Bowl victory and a Heisman Trophy winner last season and blanked Auburn on the road last weekend, are legitimate national championship contenders.

Don't count on USC (1-0) looking past BYU (1-0) in its home opener.

"We're very determined to get this program back where it belongs and in order to do that, as (coach) Pete Carroll says all the time to our players, we have to protect our home turf," said Chow, who spent 22 years as a BYU assistant.

The Trojans can't afford a loss to the unranked Cougars and remain in the national title hunt.

"We need to stay focused, not just for BYU but for the ability to handle it all the way down the schedule," said Carroll, who, in addition to his head coaching duties, serves as the defensive coordinator.

USC was one of the hottest teams in the country when the 2002 season ended and this year's squad may be just as good, or even better — evidenced by the Trojans' convincing 23-0 win at Auburn. USC has won nine games in a row, its longest streak since winning 10 straight in 1988. The Trojans have also won their last nine home games, including two shutouts in their last seven home games.

USC's speedy, physical defense leads the way. "Their defense is killer. They're a bunch of great players," said BYU tight end Daniel Coats. "They're not going to be happy until they have a shutout."

The Trojans' defensive front is touted by the USC media relations department as the nation's best. Omar Nazel, Kenechi Udeze, Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody comprise a defensive line that has been nicknamed "Wild Bunch II" after the school's famous 1969 defensive line.

"I don't know if there's a team we'll face that's as talented and as tough as these guys," said BYU center Scott Jackson. "They're very hyped. It's going to prepare us for the rest of the year and make us stronger. It's going to show us how good we can play."

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville certainly took notice of USC's defensive front last week. "(Quarterback Jason Campbell) didn't have a chance. He was running around for his life," Tuberville said. "We just couldn't get any rhythm going. You could just feel our offensive line didn't feel good about being able to block those guys."

Knowing the Trojans limited Auburn to 43 yards rushing and recorded six sacks, expect the Cougars to try to spread out USC's defense.

Can the Cougars' young offensive line protect quarterback Matt Berry?

"That will be a big key," Jackson said. "If we spread it out, it puts us man-on-man with those D-linemen and it's our responsibility to give time for the wide receivers to get free. Yeah, it is a little bit on our shoulders."

Running back Reynaldo Brathwaite, who will start in place of Marcus Whalen (foot injury), says BYU must establish a running game and keep USC's defense off-balance. "They have a lot of speed to the ball. Their D-line is probably their best position on the field," he said. "We just need to execute. If we can put up points, I don't think USC will score too much on our 'D.' "

NOTES: In his first career start, USC sophomore quarterback Matt Leinart completed 17 of 30 passes for 192 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions . . . The last time USC was ranked as high as fourth going into its second game of the season was 1985 . . . BYU has not been shut out in 351 games, an ongoing NCAA record . . . The Cougars have 38 married players on their roster while the Trojans have one, snapper Matt Hayward.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com