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Y. gets a gauge on itself

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USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow and BYU coach Gary Crowton chat before Saturday's contest.

USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow and BYU coach Gary Crowton chat before Saturday’s contest.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

LOS ANGELES — Lance Reynolds got on the hotel elevator Friday night with the next day's game against Southern California clearly in mind. Imagine that. When someone asked about the ramifications of the contest, he had a ready answer.

"It will tell us a lot about ourselves and where we are," said the BYU assistant head coach. "A lot."

And so it did. It told them something they have suspected all summer: They aren't bad. And that they need to set their wake-up calls one quarter sooner. It also told them the rest of their schedule could be as interesting as a suspense novel.

Score it USC 21, BYU 0 — in the first quarter.

Final tally: USC 35, BYU 18.

"I have a lot of respect for BYU, I think a lot of people will," said USC coach Pete Carroll. "This was a hard game for us."

In any season, it is difficult to gauge a team's potential by the first game. Last week's win over Georgia Tech in Provo was certainly good news for BYU. But enlightening? Not exactly. It told them zilch about how the Cougars might fare against a ranked team. Turns out the answer is "respectably." Just as long as you toss out the three interceptions and a handful of gut-wrenching penalties. Does 85 yards of total offense in the first half help clear things up?

You drop a third-down pass that hits you in the chest. You fumble a punt that leads to a quick touchdown in the game's early minutes. You hang on to the opposing quarterback a moment too long as he rolls out of bounds and get a penalty that leads to another score. You throw an interception. Hello, Trouble. Thirteen minutes into the game and the outcome is as obvious as a Chuck Norris movie.

Or not.

If nothing else, the Cougars showed they are made of more than simple hopes. There was the spirited rally that pulled them within three with 7:05 remaining in the game. But then came a couple of defensive breakdowns and two quick USC touchdowns. Time to call it a night.

The Cougars' loss shouldn't be blamed on nerves, brought on by the sizable crowd (75,315) and atmosphere of tradition. BYU teams have been there before, more times than it can count. Yes, that was the Goodyear Blimp hovering above the stadium. Big deal. Didn't BYU face down the ghost of Knute Rockne at Notre Dame? Didn't other BYU teams stare down the defending national champions, Miami, in Cougar Stadium? Reynolds, for one, was there for all of those games and more.

BYU has played and beaten big-name schools before. This was just one in a long list of games against highly rated teams. Sometimes the schedule has led to big things. In 1984 the Cougars sent an inexperienced Robbie Bosco up against No. 3-ranked Pittsburgh in the first game of the season, and came away a 20-14 winner. Although Pittsburgh ended up being a bust that season anyway, the Cougars didn't. They won the national championship.

In the last regular-season game of 1988 they played at Miami, losing 41-17. Two years later they met the Hurricanes in Provo. Though Miami was a preseason No. 1 and coming off a national championship, the Cougars won 28-21.

The 2000 Cougars played Florida State in their season opener, a year after the Seminoles won the national title. They absorbed a 29-3 loss and went on to a disappointing 6-6 season. But the next year they won their first 12 games. In 1985 they played UCLA, rated No. 2 in the preseason polls, and lost just 27-24. Yet the next week they played Washington, which finished No. 2 in the polls the previous year, winning 31-3.

In short, hanging out with the giants sometimes produces gigantic results.

And always it serves to teach something important.

This time it was neither a blowout loss nor an exhilarating win.

It was a respectable try after a bad start. A reminder of why they scheduled such games in the first place: It never hurts to ask. Will it help them when they play Colorado State, Utah, Notre Dame and Stanford?

Absolutely. Will it get them respect from the BCS? Perhaps.

There's nothing like a course from the School of Hands-On Experience.

In playing USC, the Cougars did more than just satisfy their curiosity, though. They followed their marching orders. Craig Thompson, the Mountain West Conference commissioner, has instructed his teams to upgrade their schedules. Which they did. To the point that it has made coach Gary Crowton complain mildly that this year's schedule is a little too much of a good thing.

Still, on Saturday, he couldn't feel too bad. You don't win big games unless you play them first. And you don't learn anything if you never go to class.

E-MAIL: rock@desnews.com