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Cougars lose but play tough vs. No. 4 USC

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LOS ANGELES — The BYU football team can take some solace, some frustration and some lessons from the three different and distinct sections of Saturday night's 35-18 loss to fourth-ranked Southern California at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

The first section: making frequent, youthful mistakes as the Cougars fell behind 21-0 through most of the first half.

The second section: riding the momentum coattails of an aggressive, confusing Cougar defense in scoring five points in the final minutes of the first half and adding a touchdown and two field goals through most of the remainder of the game while shutting down the Trojan attack.

And the third section: watching a three-point deficit to a 22-point favorite end up getting closer to the lopsided loss expected by oddsmakers as USC scored two touchdowns in the final 4 minutes and 11 seconds of the game to put it out of reach.

The result for BYU, now 1-1 overall two games into the 2003 season? A possible blowout turned oh-so-close contest turned back to a rather resounding defeat. All because of untimely miscues and lapses.

"It's hard to take a positive from a loss," said linebacker K.C. Bills, whose first-half safety halted a string of 21 straight USC points and started an 18-point surge over two-plus quarters to draw within 21-18. "But we know that we made our own mistakes."

And BYU coach Gary Crowton said he'll know very soon how Saturday night's game against a sizable and speedy USC team will pay off for his Cougars.

"Where I can tell that is how we do against New Mexico," he said, already looking ahead to next week's Mountain West Conference opener against the Lobos, who not only upset BYU last season but were picked ahead of the Cougars in the preseason polls.

BYU will have to learn from its lessons and eliminate the mistakes that cost the Cougars early — a dropped third-down pass by a wide-open Daniel Coats that halted BYU's opening possession, a fumbled punt return by David Christensen that led to USC's opening touchdown, an interception and 18-yard TD return by Trojan defensive lineman Omar Nazel of a Matt Berry pass, and a frequent inability to hold back a defensive rush that resulted in a half-dozen sacks of Berry and almost as many rushes and hurries.

Before 13 minutes had even escaped from the game clock, USC had rushed out to a 21-0 lead, scoring first on a 1-yard pass from quarterback Matt Leinart to super-soph wide-out Mike Williams, a 48-yard pass from Leinart to receiver Keary Colbert and Nazel's 16-yard interception return. Ryan Killeen kicked the three point-afters for the three-TD lead.

By the second quarter, BYU's defense was starting to hold its own. "I could see the momentum coming defensively," Crowton said.

First, with 2:51 to go in the half and with the Trojans inside their own 10, Bills was credited with a safety, dragging down Leinart in the end zone before the QB tossed the ball in desperation and drew an intentional-grounding call.

And a John Denney interception of a Leinart pass with 8.7 seconds left before intermission set up a 53-yard Matt Payne field goal as the half ended, pulling the Cougars to within 21-5. It was Payne's career-long kick and tied for the second-longest in school history.

Although down 16 at intermission, the Cougars went into the locker room upbeat and optimistic.

"I think we changed the momentum of the game, right down to the end," Crowton said.

Momentum, scoring and shutting down the host Trojans continued in the second half, as BYU scored on its first possession of the third quarter — a 14-yard pass from Berry to Coats — and added two Payne field goals (of 26 and 52 yards) in the first seven minutes of the final period to draw within 21-18.

But the Trojans scored two insurance touchdowns in the final seven minutes — the first off a vintage naked-bootleg pass call from offensive coordinator Norm Chow (just like he used to call as a former BYU assistant) as Leinart and Williams linked up for an 18-yard score. And a Fahu Tahi fumble on the Cougar 11 in the final two minutes set up USC's fifth and final TD, an 11-yard sweep by Hershel Dennis.

Berry completed 27 of 39 passes for 297 yards and a touchdown, but he was intercepted three times, including underthrowing Chris Hale twice on deep routes. John Beck came in for several series, doubling his yardage (29 to 12) on running than passing, but he left the game in the final seconds due to a concussion.

The BYU defense claimed three turnovers, with Josh Brandon and Levi Madarieta also picking off passes.

The Cougars outgained the Trojans 359-305 in offensive yardage and held their own in most of the offensive statistics. Just like they pretty much held their own for a good share of the game — the starting and ending bookend sections notwithstanding.

"People didn't think we were going to score a point, let alone be right in the game until late in the fourth quarter," said Crowton, adding, "we were so close — we were just so excited in getting there."

E-MAIL: taylor@desnews.com