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BYU preparing for an 18-year-old backup freshman QB who might be ‘better than the starter’ when No. 24 USC visits Saturday

Cougars see Trojans’ first appearance in Provo since 2004 as an opportunity to pull off another big upset after they dumped Tennessee last weekend. Will they be able to contain quarterback Kedon Slovis?

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

PROVO — Had USC’s visit to LaVell Edwards Stadium taken place last weekend, rather than the upcoming one, BYU’s defensive players and coaches might have salivated over the prospects of welcoming a true freshman quarterback to Provo.

But the Trojans’ 18-year-old quarterback, Kedon Slovis, played so well in his first college start — a resounding 45-20 victory over Stanford on Saturday night — that even the Cougars were impressed by the way the Scottsdale, Arizona, product performed while filling in for opening-night starter JT Daniels, out for the remainder of the season with an ACL and meniscus injury.

“The freshman quarterback, he could arguably be better than the starter,” BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said during the BYU-produced Coordinators Corner program Monday morning after viewing tape of Slovis’ outing against the Cardinal. Slovis, whose QBs coach in high school was former NFL great Kurt Warner, threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

Tuiaki said USC is going to be a “tough team to beat” because Slovis is not only unusually poised for a freshman, he has some outstanding playmakers to lean upon.

“We have to tackle well in space,” Tuiaki said. “That will be a key.”

Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. Saturday, and the game will be televised nationally by ABC (Ch. 4). Shortly after BYU’s press briefing Monday afternoon, USC announced that athletic director Lynn Swann has stepped down, another development that should add intrigue to the first meeting between the Cougars and No. 24-ranked Trojans since Reggie Bush-led USC pounded BYU 42-10 in 2004.

“Schools like USC are the ones that you see and are exposed to all the time,” said BYU linebackers coach Ed Lamb on the same show as Tuiaki. “It’s a tremendous opportunity. … The motivation takes care of itself. It will be a tremendous challenge.”

USC opened as a four-point favorite.

A lot of questions for BYU head coach Kalani Sitake and players Micah Simon, Brady Christensen and Khyiris Tonga focused on the Cougars’ stunning 29-26 double-overtime win at Tennessee last Saturday. Then the coach and players got around to discussing the mighty Trojans and their hot new quarterback, who was excused from a practice last spring so he could attend his high school prom, having graduated last December.

“Yeah, Slovic, he is an impressive kid, good composure,” Sitake said. “He is poised and he made some really tough throws (against Stanford). Obviously, he was really effective. … And he has some really good weapons around him.”

BYU defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga, who didn’t start against the Vols because he was slightly banged up but ended up playing and making a big difference in the run defense, said he watched USC throttle Stanford on the flight home from Knoxville.

“He is a really good quarterback,” Tonga said. “It is going to be fun. Their offensive line is really good, receivers are great. It will be a good test for us.”

Sitake said BYU coaches are selling the Trojans’ visit as a good opportunity for the Cougars to show they can match up physically with one of college football’s blue bloods, a point of emphasis over his last several seasons.

“There is a reason why they are ranked and why there is a lot of excitement going on with them,” Sitake said. “So we get them here at home and we are just looking forward to matching up with them.”

Immediately after the win over Tennessee, Sitake said BYU did not handle the monumental upset over Wisconsin well last year and played poorly the next time it faced a Power Five opponent, Washington. Coincidentally, the Cougars host the Huskies a week from Saturday at the same time — 1:30 p.m. — and that game could also be televised by ABC.

Wisconsin “was a physical game,” Sitake said. “We had a lot of guys banged up. We have started to develop our players and get them ready for this type of schedule. The key was to focus on our health and nutrition. We came out of the Tennessee game pretty healthy, so that’s a good sign for us.”

After describing how he made the big 64-yard reception against Tennessee, Simon said facing a program such as USC at home is “what you dream of” as a kid.

“This is what it is all about, just preparing and going out there and executing,” he said.

Christensen, from Bountiful, said the chance to play high-profile opponents week in and week out, at least early in the season, is one of the benefits of being an independent.

“Oh, I love the national exposure,” he said. “They are a great, great team. I love the opportunity we have to play in a nationally televised game in front of thousands of people and everyone watching around the world. So, I am excited.”