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Why Cade Fennegan could make his BYU debut at the New Mexico Bowl

With Jaren Hall’s status up in the air and Jacob Conover in the transfer portal, the former Boise State Bronco may be under center in Albuquerque a week from Saturday.

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BYU’s current 112-player roster includes no fewer than seven quarterbacks on Aug. 5, 2021.

BYU’s quarterbacks Jacob Conover (17), Cade Fennegan (11) and Jaren Hall (3) leave practice in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. With Hall’s health in question and Conover in the transfer portal, Fennegan could get the nod at QB when BYU faces SMU in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 17, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

In a roller-coaster season full of twists and turns, BYU is bracing for one final ride — but will a new face be in the lead car? Redshirt freshman quarterback Cade Fennegan, a Boise State transfer who hasn’t taken a single game snap in 25 months, is preparing to make his Cougars debut against SMU next Saturday, Dec. 17, in the New Mexico Bowl (5:30 p.m., ABC).

Barring a miracle, Jaren Hall’s right ankle injury on a broken play against Stanford will keep him from playing in what was expected to be his final game at BYU before declaring for the NFL draft. Jacob Conover, another redshirt freshman quarterback, finished the game against the Cardinal, but entered the transfer portal Monday.

With Hall sidelined, backup quarterbacks Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters and Nick Billoups are also getting reps in practice, but even Fennegan’s limited playing time at Boise State has him better equipped for prime-time television.

In fact, Fennegan could have played ahead of Conover against Stanford, and even some during October when Hall played through a shoulder injury, had he not been mending from his own ankle injury. However, back at full health, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound right-handed rifleman is good to go.

Deck the Hall

If Hall has truly played his final game at BYU, he will be remembered as among the most athletically gifted quarterbacks in program history, with more victories against Power Five opponents than any of his predecessors, but he paid a high price for success — never finishing a season healthy.

Concussions and foot and ankle issues kept him out of the bowl games in 2019, 2021 and likely in 2022. He redshirted in 2020.

Even with his impressive skill set, as Cougar Nation witnessed against a very beatable Notre Dame team, Hall needs a week of practice reps leading up to a game to be effective — most quarterbacks do. Facing a susceptible Irish secondary, Hall struggled to complete 9 of 17 passes for 120 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in a deflating 28-20 defeat.

To the contrary, a month later at Boise State, a healthy Hall threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns. He was also BYU’s leading rusher with 82 yards and a touchdown in a 31-28 victory against a defense ranked among the best in college football.

A healthy Hall is a tough out. But he isn’t healthy. At least not today, and playing an injured Hall puts BYU’s chances of beating SMU, and his future, at risk. The Cougars gambled on that notion in October and went 0-4.

Enter Cade Fennegan.

Who is Cade Fennegan?

When former Cougars star Zach Wilson was lighting up Utah defenses at Corner Canyon High, Fennegan was doing the same thing — but in Texas.

Fennegan finished his run at Woodrow Wilson High in Dallas with school records for most wins (24), passing yards (6,454) and passing touchdowns (94).

As is the case so often in life, timing is everything. One month after Wilson decommitted from Boise State to play at BYU, and with Baylor Romney and Jaren Hall already in the quarterback room, Fennegan signed with North Texas to play for offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.

While Fennegan was on his church mission to Argentina, Harrell left North Texas for the same position at USC. Both the Trojans and Boise State offered Fennegan a scholarship and he chose to play for Bryan Harsin and the Broncos.

Injuries to the two quarterbacks in front of him forced Fennegan into action early in the first quarter against No. 9 BYU on Nov. 6, 2020. He was so new in the program, returning home from his mission just before fall camp, that he didn’t get any practice reps during the week leading up to the game.

BYU hammered the Broncos 51-17, but Fennegan turned in a gutsy performance and completed 15 of 26 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns. Along the way, he caught the eye of Cougars offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick.

Fennegan played sparingly the following week against Colorado State and when his head coach, Harsin, left Boise State for the Auburn job at the end of the season, Fennegan entered the transfer portal and Roderick scooped him up.

Little fanfare

In the wake of five losses, staff changes and limited bowl prep, if Fennegan takes the field against SMU he will do so with little fanfare. BYU is not expected to make an official announcement just as they did last year during the run-up to the Independence Bowl.

Hall injured his foot at USC, and even while missing practice reps he vowed to play against UAB right up to game day — before watching Baylor Romney take every snap.       

This is a big moment for Fennegan, and the odds are stacked against him. He’s going up against a healthy SMU quarterback and an offense that averages a robust 38.4 points a game.

Tanner Mordecai, another former Texas high school star and Oklahoma transfer, has completed 261 passes for 3,306 yards and 31 touchdowns this season, while Fennegan hasn’t attempted a single pass since Nov. 12, 2020.

But Fennegan isn’t marching into battle alone. Except for possibly Hall and receivers Gunner Romney and Kody Epps, BYU is relatively healthy on an offense that averages 31.9 points and features Puka Nacua, who will likely play a larger role in the game plan.

The ground attack, that disappeared in October, reappeared in November with impressive showings at Boise State (20-155) and Stanford (50-358). A healthy Chris Brooks will also give a young quarterback a weapon to rely on.

With both defenses surrendering a lot of points, the buildup to kickoff has been nothing short of a precursor to a shootout. The Cougars allow 30 points a game while the Mustangs give up 34.7. The team that plays just a little defense might make the ultimate difference in who wins or loses.

Roderick likes Fennegan’s mobility and arm strength and while BYU is madly shopping the portal for a quarterback (or two) to help going into the Big 12, this is a moment where Fennegan can prove his worth.

True blue

Fennegan grew up a BYU fan. His dad, Garth, was a backup quarterback to Ty Detmer and his mom, Amy, is also a Cougars alum. Understandably, the teenager was bummed out when Detmer, then BYU’s offensive coordinator in the summer of 2016, told him he didn’t have a scholarship to offer him, but Fennegan kept going and he kept throwing.

Six years later, his improbable journey has brought him to the New Mexico Bowl and this opportunity to finally show off what he can do as the BYU quarterback.

Sometimes in sports, fair or not, all you get is one shot — but there are exceptions. Detmer threw four interceptions at Wyoming in his debut in 1988, but he showed enough gusto to convert a believer (LaVell Edwards) and went on to win the Heisman Trophy. 

For Fennegan, his Cougars career may or may not be riding on next Saturday, but with some of his own gusto, it could go a long way toward solidifying his future. No one will be pulling for him any harder than Detmer. After all, Ty has had to wait a long time (29 years) to see another Texan start at quarterback for BYU in a bowl game.

Could Hall still practice next week and play? It’s possible, although he may need a miracle to pull it off — but then again, miracles have happened before against SMU. However, it’s looking more likely that another young gun from the Lone Star State is about to get his shot — and he’s ready to fire away.

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Boise State quarterback Cade Fennegan throws against BYU Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Boise, Idaho. BYU won 51-17. Fennegan, now a backup quarterback at BYU, could have his number called when the Cougars take on SMU in the New Mexico Bowl.

Steve Conner, Associated Press

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.