PROVO – All the attention, obviously, focused on the kid, the raw teenager making his first start at football’s most important position.
For sure, Zach Wilson graded out well at quarterback in helping lead BYU to a dominant 49-23 win over Hawaii on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium before a crowd of 52,354 fans. Even as the freshman exceeded expectations, the details of this game involved more than the freshman.
Wilson, who showed why the BYU coaches were giddy when he flipped his commitment from Boise State late in the recruiting process last year, threw for 194 yards and three touchdowns. He also displayed enough maturity to live for another day when the situation called for him to dump the football out of bounds instead of risking a loss of yardage.
But don’t overlook or ignore the Cougars defense, which had not played well as a unit against a Division I team since BYU beat Wisconsin four weeks ago. Also give credit to the offensive line and running backs for taking the pressure off the inexperienced quarterback.
“A lot of guys contributed to the win,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake.
As well as the offense played, perhaps the bigger surprise was a defense that limited a high-powered Hawaii attack. In the six prior games that quarterback Cole McDonald played – he missed last week’s 17-14 win over Wyoming – the Rainbow Warriors averaged 42 points.
This is the same defense that Washington and Utah State shredded the prior two games in lopsided BYU losses. Over the first six games the Cougars had trouble getting to the quarterback, but they sacked McDonald four times before the fourth quarter.
Led by Corbin Kaufusi, the BYU defense spent a considerable portion of the game in Hawaii’s backfield. Normally a defensive end, the 6-foot-9 Kaufusi often lined up at linebacker with the primary purpose of trailing McDonald.
Considering Hawaii’s offensive attack relies on the pass, the secondary also gave a tough, physical effort. Even Hawaii’s completions were often defended well.
Like it did in wins against Arizona and Wisconsin, the Cougars ran the ball well enough to control the game. This time they did it without leading rusher Squally Canada, who missed the game with an injury.
“They’re big boys,” said Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich. “They wanted to be able to run the ball, and they did.
The trio of Lopini Kotoa, Riley Burt and Matt Hadley more than enough offset the loss of Canada. In all, BYU rushed for a season-high 280 yards and also had a season-best 474 yards of total offense.
Still, for all the stellar efforts, this game will be remembered as the unveiling of Wilson in what BYU hopes is the start of a long, successful career. It’s only one game, but it sure looks that way for now.
“The guy gave them some juice,” said Rolovich. “He made some good throws.”
Playing his first meaningful snaps, Wilson looked like he belonged in the lineup long before the seventh game of the season. After two lackluster performances in consecutive losses the last two weeks, the BYU coaches finally decided to bench senior Tanner Mangum in favor of the former star at Corner Canyon High School in Draper, UT.
“I have a lot of faith in him,” said receiver Dylan Collie. “I know everyone does, and we’re going to keep this going.”
Wilson went 2 for 2 on touchdown drives on BYU’s first two possessions. He displayed all the necessary tools on both drives, including a 23-yard touchdown on a quarterback draw to give BYU a 14-0 lead. Late in the fourth quarter, the youngest starting quarterback in BYU history at barely 19 years old capped his night by lofting a beautiful 26-yard touchdown pass to Gunner Romney on a fourth-and-6 play.
All in all, it was game the Cougars won’t forget but also hope will be a footnote over the next four years.