MORGANTOWN, West Virginia — As West Virginia football fans sang the John Denver classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads” Saturday night after pummeling BYU 37-7 at Milan Puskar Stadium in an impressive display of state and school pride, the Cougars and their coaches patiently waited on a corner of the field for their turn to sing their song and reward the couple thousand royal blue-clad fans who made the trip from either Provo or points up and down the East Coast.

“That’s not my decision. Like I said, I will just go back to the tape and dissect what I did and learn from that. I think that’s A Rod’s decision at the end of the day. I just know that I am going to go out there and play my hardest and play my heart out every week and whatever that comes to, I will live with that.” — BYU quarterback Jake Retzlaff

One phrase of West Virginia’s melody had some extra significance for BYU backup quarterback Jake Retzlaff, who filled in for a banged up Kedon Slovis: “To the place, I belong.”

After completing 24 of 42 passes for 210 yards, taking care of the ball reasonably well, making some outstanding throws and escaping the pocket and avoiding a couple sacks with the mobility and athleticism coaches and teammates promised he has, Retzlaff showed that he belongs at the top of BYU’s quarterback depth chart.

At least for now.

The 5-4 Cougars’ performance showed, once again, that their issues go way beyond shaky quarterback play, which was what the veteran Slovis — who has an ulnar collateral ligament problem in the elbow of his throwing arm, among other dings — was giving them the past few games, even in that 27-14 win over Texas Tech on Oct. 21.

Retzlaff gives BYU a breath of life in what is quickly devolving into a mess of a season, sort of like in 2017 when the bottom almost dropped out of Kalani Sitake’s program. That’s why the spunky junior college transfer from Southern California should get the start Saturday when BYU hosts Iowa State (4-2, 5-4) at LaVell Edwards Stadium, regardless if Slovis is healthy or not.

Kickoff is at 8:15 p.m. MST and the game will be televised by ESPN.

Why is a change needed? It’s time to look to the future — which clearly isn’t Slovis, a fifth-year graduate transfer whose skillset might be better suited to pro football than college football, where there is a premium on mobility and dual-threat ability.

Heck, Slovis might not want to regain his starting spot, given how poorly BYU’s offensive line has protected its quarterback lately. And he’s got no running game to rely on to take away some of the pressure.

“Yeah, Kedon has been playing banged up for a little bit now,” Sitake said. “The Texas game kinda put him in some danger and he couldn’t really …”

Sitake didn’t finish the sentence, but it was clear where he was headed. Slovis couldn’t protect himself.

Retzlaff seemingly can. 

Remember 2018?

BYU’s season got off to a similar start, as senior Tanner Mangum led the Cougars to wins over Arizona, No. 6 Wisconsin and McNeese State before the season started to nosedive with blowout losses at No. 11 Washington and at home to Utah State.

A freshman by the name of Zach Wilson got the start on Oct. 14 against Hawaii, delivered a 49-23 win at LES, and the rest is history. The current New York Jets starting QB showed off his running ability with a rushing touchdown and three passing touchdowns, and Mangum never got his starting job back.

We’re not saying Retzlaff is the next Wilson, but he displayed some similar arm strength, some similar moxie, that got Wilson into the pantheon of BYU’s quarterbacking greats.

By the way, BYU had four drops against the Mountaineers, according to Pro Football Focus, so Retzlaff’s numbers easily could have been better than a 57% completion rate. The thing he didn’t do was get the ball in the end zone on the reg, which he knows he needs to improve upon.

“It is hard to say that sitting here right now, how I played, how we played,” Retzlaff said in the postgame news conference. “It was 37-7 at the end of the day. I will have to go back and watch the tape and really figure out what we gotta do and how we gotta be better and how I gotta be better.

“I don’t know the numbers or anything yet. We just gotta play better as a unit and put some points on the board. We didn’t do that this week,” he continued.

He also said the score “doesn’t reflect how we think we played,” meaning the Cougars left some points out there, much like they did last week in the 35-6 loss at No. 7 Texas in which Slovis could only get them two field goals.

Speaking of Slovis, he’s been everything BYU has wanted of its starting quarterback off the field, emerging as a true leader and force for positivity. His teammates always speak highly of him, and how he takes accountability for poor play after losses. But there’s just no reason to keep playing him, bowl eligibility be darned.

“We will play the best guy. If someone is injured and they can (still) play at a high level, then that is what we will go with. If not, we will play with the healthy guy that can go,” Sitake said, with BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe sitting in the back of the room. “We have a number of players, not just the quarterback, but other positions that can contribute and help us win.”

Responding to a different question about whether BYU’s pass blocking has regressed from earlier in the season when that seemed to be a strength, Sitake again mentioned Retzlaff’s mobility.

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“We gave up three sacks. It just seemed like Jake was probably running too much and couldn’t settle his feet. Maybe they got some hurries. He took some shots,” Sitake said. “… When Jake has time, and I have said this before, when Kedon has time, they can usually make the right throws and go through our progression and our reads. There were a couple of times where Jake had to tuck it and run. That’s not a good sign for us.”

It would be a worse sign if BYU went back to the same old thing, in this case the pocket-passer Slovis. Sitake himself said he owes it to the team and fan base to put the players on the field who give the Cougars the best chance to win — not just this year, but beyond.

What does Retzlaff think?

“That’s not my decision,” he said, handling questions like a seasoned pro. “Like I said, I will just go back to the tape and dissect what I did and learn from that. I think that’s A Rod’s decision at the end of the day. I just know that I am going to go out there and play my hardest and play my heart out every week and whatever that comes to, I will live with that.”

Cougars on the air

Iowa State (4-2, 5-4)
at BYU (2-4, 5-4)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MST
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

Speaking of offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, who will ultimately make the decision, Retzlaff said the former BYU receiver wouldn’t put a player on the field who couldn’t play at this level, when asked if he proved to himself and his teammates that he could with his performance Saturday night.

“I don’t think there was a doubt going into the game,” Retzlaff said. “It wasn’t a matter of proving that I could play at (this) level, it was just a matter of going out and executing the offense. And like I say, we didn’t do that well enough tonight.”