BOISE — With a flawless and historic passing performance, BYU true freshman quarterback Zach Wilson helped exorcise some demons on the blue turf Friday afternoon in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Wilson completed a school-record 18 of 18 passes for 317 yards and four touchdowns as BYU blasted Western Michigan, 49-18, before a crowd of 18,711 at Albertsons Stadium.
It marks the Cougars’ first-ever victory at Albertsons Stadium — improving to 1-5 all-time — and they finished the campaign with a 7-6 record.
Wilson made mashed potatoes out of the Western Michigan secondary, especially in the second half. He was named the bowl’s MVP after completing 18 straight passes, setting the new BYU single-game record of 14 previously held by Steve Sarkisian and Steve Young.
It was good to see Zach just throw it and let loose. I’ve mentioned that he’s a gunslinger, and that’s kind of what we need to let him. – BYU coach Kalani Sitake, on quarterback Zach Wilson
Less than two months ago, Wilson and the Cougars suffered a heartbreaking setback here on the blue turf as they squandered an opportunity to knock off Boise State for the first time in five tries here.
“I learned more in these past six games than I have my entire life playing football,” Wilson said. “I was excited for this game plan going in and I know the rest of the team was and I know the coaches and the players were all on the same page with everything we were doing. I'm glad we get the 'W' on this field and hopefully against Boise State Broncos next time we get the ‘W’.”
During the pregame press conference Friday, coach Kalani Sitake was asked how he expected Wilson would play in the bowl game.
“Perfectly,” said the prescient Sitake. “That’s what I’m praying for, perfect play from everyone.”
On the defensive side of the ball, senior linebacker Sione Takitaki turned in a spectacular effort with 19 tackles — the most ever in a bowl game for BYU.
Including his completion at the end of the Utah game, Wilson will enter the 2019 season with 19 consecutive completions. The BYU record for most overall completions in a row is 22, set by Young in 1982.
Wilson fell one completion short of tying an NCAA bowl record for single-game completions. Georgia’s Mike Bobo had 19 straight completions in 1998 against Wisconsin.
What made Wilson’s performance even more impressive was that BYU trailed at intermission, 10-7, as he helped the Cougars explode for 35 unanswered points in the second half. BYU had 115 yards at intermission and finished with 490. Wilson ended up with a quarterback rating of 321.3.
“I've been trying to let Zach loose for a long time now,” Sitake said after the game. “I think an aggressive style of football is what we need to have on offense and I don't know exactly the change, but I think this was really good for us in the second half to see that when teams are going to be committed to stopping the run, that we have to go other ways to getting points on the board.
“Our receivers ran great routes. You had guys like Matt Bushman just stealing the ball from the other team,” Sitake continued. “I thought it was really clean with our offense and I thought they were really efficient. It was good to see Zach just throw it and let loose. I've mentioned that he's a gunslinger, and that's kind of what we need to let him.”
BYU senior wide receiver Dylan Collie caught two touchdown passes and finished with six receptions for 124 yards.
“I said it from the very beginning, you watch Zach from the time that I arrived in May 'til today, I mean, all he's done is gotten better physically and mentally,” Collie said of Wilson. “And from the way that he talks to the receivers and coaches, he's constantly communicating. And it was just a matter of time for him. He was able to let go and kind of run the show, and that's what he did today. To see a 19-year-old kid in Zach Wilson and what's going to happen in the next three years, yeah, he set the bar for himself but I'll go ahead and set it even higher. I truly believe this kid will be one of, if not the greatest quarterback in BYU history, and he's going to do that. He knows that and that's his mentality. I love being around him and love watching him grow.”
Down by three points, the Cougars got the ball to start the second half and on their first play from scrimmage, Wilson, who was 8 of 8 in the first half, connected with wide receiver Neil Pau’u for a 48-yard completion to the Western Michigan 21-yard line. That drive ended with an eight-yard TD pass to Collie.
Later in the quarter, BYU scored on a 37-yard run by Riley Burt, who ended up with 13 carries for 110 yards. That was followed by a 70-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Aleva Hifo.
An interception return of 26 yards by safety Austin Lee set up another scoring drive that culminated with a one-yard touchdown run by safety Dayan Ghanwoloku. At the end of the third quarter, the Cougars were up 35-10.
“Yeah, they abandoned the running game. I thought our defense did a great job the first half keeping us in it, but once they got a lead on us, they just got after our secondary pretty good,” said Western Michigan coach Tim Lester. “We have to do a better job of getting pressure on the quarterback but I mean, the quarterback had a great day. It was going to be about what quarterback could get into a rhythm, and we said that all week because I thought we could stop the run."
“He's a great player,” Bronco safety Alex Grace said of Wilson. “If we had got to the quarterback a little more, if we had maybe hurried him a little more, the game could have been different. No, he's a great player and we just didn't play to the best of our ability.”
BYU caught the first break of the game when Western Michigan punter executed a nine-yard punt that was shanked into the sideline. Two plays later, the Cougars capitalized as Wilson threw a 26-yard touchdown strike to Collie, lifting BYU to a 7-0 lead with 2:20 left in the first quarter.
On the Cougars’ ensuing possession, they moved again into Bronco territory before Wilson failed to get a first down on fourth-and-1 when he lost two yards on a run out of shotgun formation.
BYU’s next drive proved to be disastrous. The Cougars marched from their own 15-yard line to the Western Michigan 38 when, on first-and-10, Wilson handed the ball to Tyler Allgeier, who tried to pitch it to Dax Milne, who fumbled. Bronco cornerback Stephan Claiborne recovered at the BYU 40 — changing the complexion of the game for the rest of the half.
On fourth-and-3 from the Cougar 33, Western Michigan’s Jamauri Bogan bounced outside and rumbled into the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 with 3:07 left in the first half.
Prior to that run, BYU entered the day ranked No. 5 nationally in plays surrendered of 30 yards or more with 13 this season.
After a BYU punt, the Broncos drove to the Cougar 20-yard line, where Gavin Peddie drilled a 37-yard field goal to make it 10-7 at halftime.
But from there, it was all BYU — and a showcase on national television for Wilson.
“I was really proud of Zach. Although he finished perfect with his completions, I hope he knows it's OK to throw the ball away once in a while,” Sitake said. “I don't expect him … to be perfect in 2019, but being close would be really nice.”