Kedon Slovis thought he saw open grass.
It was third down in overtime, and No. 24 USC trailed Brigham Young by three points, with an easy, game-extending field goal seemingly around the corner.
But none of that context mattered because here was an opening in the BYU defense, here was a chance for the Trojans to put this mistake-ridden road opener behind them, here was open grass beckoning for the freshman to throw.
But it was merely a mirage, another trap laid in a game full of them. Slovis’ throw was tipped and then intercepted, and the Trojans suffered a 30-27 loss to the Cougars.
In an instant, the renewed hope for USC’s season took a major hit in a rushing wave of blue-and-white-clad BYU fans.
All week, in light of USC’s uplifting victory over Stanford, coach Clay Helton preached maturity to his young team. He acknowledged the trap that BYU presented. He warned of a road letdown.
Now, here it was, and as BYU fans rushed the field, disobeying the loudspeaker instructing them otherwise, USC (2-1) had no choice but to stew in that disappointment.
Their scorching offense had gone cold. Their dynamic freshman quarterback was made mortal. Their defense went missing in action.
The mistakes, altogether, proved one too many.
“We had the opportunity to close the door,” Helton said, “and you know what, the ball bounced the wrong way. That happens sometimes in football.”
But what happened Saturday hardly squared with the team that smacked down Stanford a week earlier.
“We left some things on the field that we should’ve fought through,” receiver Tyler Vaughns said. “It’s just on us.”
It started with Slovis, who seemed ready after one possession to replicate his near-perfect performance from last week. He marched the Trojans down the field on a 10-play touchdown drive to open the game. He hit open receivers in spite of pressure. He took what BYU’s defense gave to him.
When Slovis ended the drive with an eight-yard dart to Michael Pittman Jr. in the end zone, it seemed the Trojans might skate to a road victory, setting their sights on their marquee Pac-12 matchup next Friday against Utah.
But that was as good as Slovis or USC’s offense would look all afternoon. BYU (2-1) dropped eight men into zone coverage, challenging Slovis to thread the needle down the field.
On USC’s next drive, Slovis threw an interception deep in his own territory. Then, one drive later, he threw another, this one, into triple coverage. The mistakes led to a 10-7 BYU lead.
He tried to stay positive, but the offense deflated with its quarterback’s inconsistency. In all, Slovis threw three interceptions, including the game-ending dagger, to go with 281 yards and two touchdowns.
“One thing you can’t let happen,” Slovis said. “You can’t lose your confidence, or else you’re screwed.”
Slovis and USC’s offense found that confidence in spurts Saturday.
The freshman’s second touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter came when he found Pittman in the corner of the end zone on a deep ball, which gave the Trojans their first lead, 24-17, since his two interceptions turned the tide early on.
The Trojans ran the ball effectively at times, too, racking up 171 yards against one of the nation’s worst run defenses.
As the Cougars clogged up passing lanes with extra defenders, USC took to the ground in the second and third quarters, determined to bludgeon its way through BYU’s light front.
As the fourth quarter began, it seemed the Trojans might finally pull away. A 12-play BYU drive was halted in the red zone with a fourth-and-two stop, handing the ball back to USC.
Slovis led a 13-play, 92-yard drive in response, capping it with the touchdown to Pittman.
But in a game filled with mistakes, nothing good could continue for USC. The defense, which gave up a season-high 430 yards, simply couldn’t hold.
A penalty on the next kickoff put the Trojans deep in their own territory again, but this time, there was no crawling out.
USC punted and could only watch soon after as Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson evaded the rush and hit a wide-open Gunner Romney 35 yards down the field. The next play, Wilson cut through USC’s defense for a go-ahead touchdown.
With time ticking away, Chase McGrath lined up and kicked a 52-yard field goal to tie it at 27-27, giving USC hope that it might just escape in overtime.
After the Trojans held on the first possession of the extra period, BYU kicked a field goal.
But then, Slovis’ third interception was tipped into the air, and the open, green grass gave way to a sea of white and blue.