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Is BYU a trap game for No. 24 USC? Coach says mighty Trojans will bring ‘greatest spectacle on earth’ to Provo Saturday

Pac-12 team with true freshman starting QB is fighting distractions after athletic director Lynn Swann resigned Monday.

Southern California quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) carries against Stanford during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

PROVO — During a recent press briefing in Los Angeles which mostly focused on the resignation of USC athletic director Lynn Swann, Trojans head football coach Clay Helton referred to his program as “the greatest spectacle on earth” in the “second-largest media market in the world” and said Swann’s news will have no bearing on this weekend’s game against BYU.

“We have a job, and one of the things you gotta realize is that this is USC, and this is the USC football team,” Helton said. “Distractions and the lights always come and it is our job to put (them) aside and focus on the mission at hand.”

In other words, the 1-1 Cougars probably can’t count on the No. 24-ranked Trojans (2-0) to look past them Saturday afternoon (1:30 p.m. MDT, ABC) at LaVell Edwards Stadium, although some USC-centric news outlets are referring to it as a “trap game” because the Trojans play host to No. 11 Utah at the Coliseum next Friday and travel to Washington and Notre Dame after that.

“I credit these kids,” Helton said. “We just had a big win (45-20 over Stanford), and the maturity of a team is to not only put a big win aside, but any distractions that come our way aside, so we can focus on what is most important, and that is Saturday and playing BYU.”

USC opened as a 3.5-point favorite, but that number quickly moved to 4.5.

Helton, his assistant coaches and players have mostly said all the right things about the Cougars this week and their ability to spring an upset if the Trojans aren’t careful. But BYU is getting little to no respect from the Los Angeles media.

“Luckily, (USC) got the perfect game in Week 3 at BYU,” wrote Jason Reed of L.A. Sports Hub. “This game could not have come at a better time, especially considering the slate of games that USC has coming up.”

Later, Reed referred to BYU as “an easier opponent” and “absolutely the perfect softball that the Trojans could have been tossed.”

It will be USC’s second visit to Provo, but its first in 15 years. Behind Matt Leinart’s 236 passing yards and Reggie Bush’s 211 all-purpose yards, USC crushed BYU 42-10 on Sept. 18, 2004.

The Trojans will be bringing another outstanding quarterback, if true freshman Kedon Slovis’ first college start against the No. 23 Cardinal last Saturday is any indication. The product of Desert Mountain High in Scottsdale, Arizona, set a USC record for a true freshman’s first start by passing for 377 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He was filling in for opening-game starter JT Daniels, who sustained a season-ending knee injury the previous week against Fresno State.

Helton said Slovis, 18, whose only other Pac-12 offer was from Oregon State, has handled his sudden fame well.

“I have been thoroughly impressed with his maturity, not only his preparation, but his execution on game day, and how he handles the limelight,” Helton said. “He’s always been a very humble kid, and that’s part of being a USC quarterback, is the intangibles that come with that position. … You are the face of the program, and he’s handled that very well.”

Will he be able to handle what is expected to be a raucous and loud LES crowd, energized by BYU’s miraculous 29-26 double-overtime win at Tennessee? That appears to be one of the few advantages the Cougars might have, because USC is bigger, faster and stronger across the board.

“Our players are smart. They know. They look at the film and they go, ‘wow, that guy is good, I gotta play my best this week.’ We don’t need to say a lot. Our players are excited to test themselves against a great team,” said BYU passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick, who was 2-4 against USC as an assistant coach at Utah (2011-16).

While a lot of attention will be paid to Slovis, running backs Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr and flashy receivers Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Michael Pittman, the Cougars say USC’s defense is just as formidable.

And it is led by the only Utahn on USC’s roster, former Bingham High star Jay Tufele, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound redshirt sophomore defensive lineman. Tufele was an All-Pac-12 second team honoree last year.

“He’s a baller, yeah,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake, who recruited Tufele hard like every other program in the state. “He’s a great one and is going to be a high (NFL) draft pick. … That defensive front is really athletic and talented, and Jay is one of the guys that stands out. It is going to be fun seeing Jay here. I just wish he was in a different uniform.”

Roderick said USC’s defensive line is similar to Utah’s, and BYU fans know how difficult it was to move the ball on the Utes.

“Their whole D line is big and athletic and deep,” Roderick said. “They can rotate guys in there and get a pass rush on you, but they can also stop the run. It is going to be a similar test to our first game.”

Safeties coach Preston Hadley said USC will have the best receiving corps the Cougars will see all season.

“Honestly, we just look at it as an opportunity. We saw what they did in the last two games. They dropped back 75 times and threw for (649) yards,” Hadley said. “We are not going to back down. We are going to step up and challenge them and be really disciplined with our disguises and we are going to get up in their face and challenge them. We are excited to see how we do.”