Zach Wilson looks back at six memorable games during his chapter of BYU’s independence
The former BYU standout and current starting quarterback for the New York Jets left an indelible mark in Provo
When Corner Canyon High product Zach Wilson signed up to play football at BYU after his 2017 senior season, the Cougars were knee deep in independence with no indication that it was ever going to change. It was a gamble Wilson was willing to take.
One year after his departure to the NFL, change arrived with an invitation for BYU to join the Big 12 Conference and be labeled a Power Five program.
“I’m really excited for it,” Wilson said. “I feel the Big 12 is going to be good for us because it’s a big-time conference and I think of the talent we can get in there as well. It’s been exciting all through independence, but I think it will be better for us.”
Wilson produced a lot of that excitement. The overlooked three-star recruit delivered a galaxy of highlights during his BYU career, back before he became the second overall selection in the 2021 NFL draft to the New York Jets.
The big decision
Sold on Kalani Sitake’s culture and Aaron Roderick’s pro-style, shot-gun offense that required a quarterback to think on his feet on every play, Wilson believed Provo was the best place to prepare him for places like Manhattan.
“Not only on the field, but off the field you are just going to put yourself where you should be in life and what it’s going to push you to do,” Wilson said. “On the field there is not a better place for opportunity. I don’t think you see more walk-ons or guys that really came from nothing, or three-star recruits with not many offers, like me, have an opportunity to come and prove what they are made of and have an opportunity to play big-time football against big-time competition.”
Dax Milne, Wilson’s favorite target during BYU’s 11-1 season in 2020, was a walk-on receiver from Bingham High and now suits up for the Washington Commanders. Like Wilson, quarterback Jaren Hall was a three-star recruit from Maple Mountain High, with the same opportunity to maximize his moment beginning Sept. 4 at South Florida before facing the likes of Baylor, Oregon, Notre Dame, Arkansas and Stanford.
During BYUtv’s media day special on the Cougars’ run as an independent, Wilson revealed the “super six” moments of his time as BYU’s quarterback.
BYU 49, Western Michigan 18 — Dec. 21, 2018
Wilson finished his up-and-down freshman season on a high that reverberated throughout the 2018 bowl season.
“It was a game that I really didn’t feel like I played that well, but I ended up 18 for 18,” he said. “You don’t really know what’s going on as a freshman.”
In addition to completing all 18 passes, Wilson threw for 317 yards — an average of 17 yards per completion — and four touchdowns.
“I go back and watch the film now and there were some throws where I’m like, ‘What am I even thinking right there?’” he said. “The receivers bailed me out on a couple of those. They had some amazing catches.”
BYU 29, Tennessee 26 (2OT) — Sept. 7, 2019
“This was the first game that I was really, truly nervous for,” Wilson said. “I feel like it was because it was on an SEC stage and playing at Neyland Stadium (92,425). Just the excitement and fan noise. I definitely had jitters there.”
BYU trailed 16-13 with 18 seconds remaining and faced third down and 6 from its own 16-yard line with no timeouts and no time for jitters.
“I see Micah Simon up the sideline and the corner turns his back at the sticks. They are in a deep cover three zone,” Wilson said. “I kind of put one out there for him a little inside that allows him to cross court and he took it into field goal range.”
Simon’s 64-yard catch and run allowed Jake Oldroyd to kick the game-tying field goal as time expired to force overtime. Wilson threw a touchdown pass to Talon Shumway in the first overtime period and Ty’Son Williams ran in the game-winner in the second overtime.
“When you go on a road game, like at Tennessee, and see blue scattered throughout the stadium, it just makes the whole experience more exciting,” Wilson said.
BYU 30, No. 24 USC 27 (OT) — Sept. 14, 2019
Seven days after the Tennessee miracle, Wilson and the Cougars stunned No. 24 USC in overtime in Provo.
“It was the back-to-back excitement of both of those,” Wilson said. “People thought BYU was going to come out of those first four games (Utah, Tennessee, USC, Washington) 0-4 and so it was exciting to pick up those two wins.”
Wilson threw for 280 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for a 16-yard score to rally the Cougars in the fourth quarter. Oldroyd kicked the go-ahead field goal in overtime and Dayan Ghanwoloku intercepted USC’S next pass to give BYU the win.
No. 15 BYU 43, Houston 26 — Oct. 16, 2020
Wilson made the most of BYU’s Friday night showdown at Houston on ESPN by throwing a 78-yard touchdown pass to Milne on the Cougars’ first offensive play from scrimmage. Wilson finished with 400 yards passing and four touchdowns.
The Cougars scored 29 unanswered points in the second half to put both the team and the quarterback on the national radar.
“That night was just exciting,” Wilson said. “I think it was the most fans we had in the COVID-19 year and that made it even more exciting. We finally had fans in there and it got really loud.”
No. 9 BYU 51, No. 21 Boise State 17 — Nov. 6, 2020
“This was big because BYU hadn’t won on that blue field before,” Wilson said. “That was the most exciting part. It’s something we always talked about.”
The Cougars stunned the Broncos early and poured it on, building a 45-3 lead early in the fourth quarter.
“Deep down we knew as a team that we were a lot better than these guys. We should just go in there and blow them out,” Wilson said. “We had that mentality, and we did. We got after them.”
Wilson finished with 360 yards passing and three touchdowns. He also ran for another score.
No. 16 BYU 49, Central Florida 23 — Dec. 22, 2020
“I had a pretty good idea going in of what I was going to do with my future, so I just wanted to end it the right way,” Wilson said as BYU marched into the Boca Raton Bowl to face Central Florida. “I prepared as much as I could that week.”
Wilson threw for 425 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for a pair of touchdowns in a game that got out of hand in the first quarter.
“I remember hitting Isaac (Rex) down the sideline on a cool little trick play,” he said. “We came ready to play.”
During Wilson’s “super six” moments, he combined to complete 130 of 177 passes for 2,014 yards, 16 touchdowns, no interceptions and ran for four touchdowns.
After dismantling Central Florida, Wilson’s very next game was in a Jets jersey, which still boggles his mind.
“I don’t know if I will ever get used to it,” he said. “The NFL I watched as a kid is different from the NFL I’m playing in now. The perspective is different, but it is a blessing for sure.”
Like BYU, Wilson took a gamble on independence and won. The Cougars will see the payoff next fall when they begin competing in the Big 12. Wilson’s payoff came a little earlier in the form of a four-year, $35,150,681 guaranteed contract.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.