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USC Has Relief Pitcher

Leinart's third touchdown pass, with 4:11 to play, pulls Trojans out of danger after they nearly blow a 21-0 lead. They survive a scare to beat BYU, 35-18.

September 07, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

USC players walked off the Coliseum field wearing expressions of relief rather than invincibility on Saturday night.

The fourth-ranked Trojans, coming off last week's season-opening shutout of Auburn, were just happy to collect a 35-18 victory after getting a scare from Brigham Young.

USC (2-0) almost squandered a 21-0 lead but came up with a key fourth-quarter scoring drive to extend both its winning streak and its home winning streak to 10 games before a crowd of 75,315.

Sophomore quarterback Matt Leinart struggled in his second career start, but he connected with wide receiver Mike Williams on an 18-yard touchdown pass with 4 minutes 11 seconds left to give the Trojans a 28-18 lead that finally staved off the Cougars.

"I'm really proud of the way we finished the game in the fourth quarter," USC Coach Pete Carroll said. "That is characteristic of our football team. To get that first win at home under our belt was very important. We have a lot of corrections to make now."

Start with the offense.

BYU's quirky 3-3-5 defensive scheme confused the Trojans and forced them into mistakes.

"Their coaches have a very good concept and we didn't solve the mystery tonight," Carroll said.

Leinart, who played without major errors against Auburn, had three passes intercepted and was sacked for a safety late in the second quarter, starting the Cougars on a run of 18 unanswered points.

"I made a few mistakes," said Leinart, who completed 19 of 34 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns. "There were some tipped balls that were intercepted, but I thought we bounced back pretty well."

Through the first quarter, USC looked as if it would continue the domination it exhibited in its 23-0 season-opening victory over Auburn.

USC led, 21-0, at the end of the first quarter on Leinart's one-yard touchdown pass to Williams, a 48-yard touchdown pass play from Leinart to flanker Keary Colbert and defensive lineman Omar Nazel's 16-yard interception return.

"In the first half, we thought it was almost too easy," Leinart said.

But BYU (1-1) finally broke through when linebacker K.C. Bills sacked Leinart in the end zone for a safety with 2:51 left in the first half.

"That kind of broke the spell a little bit," Bills said. "After that we knew we could give them a game."

BYU's John Denney intercepted a tipped pass 8.7 seconds before halftime, and Matt Payne kicked a career-long 53-yard field goal on the final play of the half, cutting the Trojans' lead to 21-5.

"Our guys were a little shocked that there were points on the board against us," Carroll said.

On the first possession of the second half, BYU quarterback Matt Berry completed five of six passes during an 80-yard, nine-play drive. Berry capped the march with a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Daniel Coats that brought the Cougars to within 21-12 with 11:51 left in the third quarter.

Payne kicked a 26-yard field goal with 14:03 left in the fourth quarter and a 52-yarder with 7:05 left to pull the Cougars to within 21-18.

"We were in trouble," Carroll said. "The game was turning. You could feel it. The momentum was shifting and we had to find a way to regain it."

After Marcell Allmond returned a kickoff 30 yards to the USC 43-yard line, the Trojans turned to Williams.

Leinart connected with the 6-foot-5 sophomore on sideline routes for 14 and 20 yards as USC drove to the BYU 18 in five plays. On first down, Leinart found a wide-open Williams for a touchdown.

"When they call your number, you have to make plays," said Williams, who caught 10 passes for 124 yards. "BYU did a good job of knowing where I was, but I know that Matt Leinart will come to me eventually. When he does, I have to make the plays."

Norm Chow, USC's offensive coordinator, said the Trojans finally executed during the drive.

"They were giving that to us all game long and we didn't take advantage of it," Chow said. "We finally got in some rhythm."

USC added its final touchdown with 1:40 left on an 11-yard run by Hershel Dennis after Matt Grootegoed recovered a fumble with 1:45 left.

Berry completed 27 of 39 passes for 297 yards and a touchdown with three interceptions. Coats caught eight passes for 114 yards.

Trojan players and coaches said the victory, while not easy, taught them a valuable lesson.

"We learned how to deal with adversity," linebacker Melvin Simmons said. "We learned how to deal with situations that aren't always as pretty as last week."

Carroll said he was encouraged by the Trojans' play down the stretch.

"We came through and got it done and finished the game really strong," Carroll said. "I'd like to feel this is a characteristic of our team. Two weeks in a row we finish strong and I hope we can keep it going."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Straight Story

A look at USC's streaks:

* The Trojans have won 10 consecutive games, dating to last season. (They lost to Washington State, 30-27, on Oct. 5, 2002.)

* The last time the Trojans won 10 in a row was in 1988 under Larry Smith. USC was 10-0 and lost to Notre Dame in the regular-season finale, then to Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

* The Trojans have also won 10 straight games at the Coliseum, last losing at home on Sept. 29, 2001, 21-16, to Stanford.

*

KEYS TO THE GAME

Gary Klein's keys to the game, and how the Trojans measured up:

Quarterback efficiency: Leinart, who made no major mistakes against Auburn, had three passes intercepted and was sacked for a safety. He completed 19 of 34 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns.

Berry picking: The Trojans sacked Matt Berry six times and intercepted three passes, but Berry completed 27 of 39 for 297 yards and a touchdown.

Avoid a letdown: The Trojans' early 21-0 lead might have lulled them into a false sense of security. Brigham Young almost overcame the deficit.

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