HONOLULU — As he patiently and graciously answered questions in the postgame news conference after taking a Hawaiian gut punch, a 38-34 loss to the Rainbow Warriors in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve at Aloha Stadium, crestfallen BYU coach Kalani Sitake played along when asked by a local reporter about UH quarterback Cole McDonald, the junior who threw for a career-high 493 yards and four touchdowns without an interception.
Sitake acknowledged that McDonald is a “big-time quarterback” with all the tools necessary — size, arm strength, mobility and competitive moxie — to succeed at the next level if he bypasses his senior season and leaves for the NFL.
It was a painful reminder to Sitake that his own handpicked starting quarterback, rising junior Zach Wilson, is not there yet.
Sure, Wilson was named BYU’s Most Outstanding Player after throwing for 274 yards and rushing for 72 and two touchdowns. He made some excellent throws and gutty runs, including a clutch third-and-4 scramble for 6 yards deep in BYU territory late in the game that was forgotten because of the plays that followed.
But Wilson’s overall performance was rocky and tarnished by inexcusable mistakes, just as so many others had been in his somewhat inconsistent sophomore season. And now there’s probably going to be an offseason quarterback controversy in Provo, seeing as how understudies Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney, who will both be redshirt sophomores in 2020 if they return, shined when given the chance while Wilson was out with a thumb injury.
Wilson had the chance in his ninth start of the year, and 16th of his career, against a subpar Hawaii defense that ranks 95th of 130 FBS teams, to erase any doubts that he should be the unquestioned starter on Sept. 3 at Utah. But he didn’t capitalize on his golden opportunity, failing to even come close to replicating that perfect outing a year ago in the Potato Bowl win over Western Michigan when he was 18 for 18 and clearly stamped himself as the no-doubt-about-it starter in 2019.
“The turnovers, all of them, came at bad times for us,” Sitake said. “We weren’t able to really recover from them.”
Sitake says turnovers doomed the Cougars, particularly the game-ending interception. pic.twitter.com/LNxw3AISpm— Jay Drew (@drewjay) December 25, 2019
Meanwhile, McDonald didn’t commit any turnovers, although it should be noted that BYU defenders Troy Warner and Kavika Fonua should have come up with interceptions.
“We dropped picks and things like that,” Sitake said. “We got to get the better end of the deal and you do that by executing at a higher level and that is my job as a coach to make sure our guys do that in all three phases.”
This day, the big breaks just went Hawaii’s way, contributing to McDonald’s ability to outplay Wilson after Wilson outplayed him in last year’s 49-23 romp in Provo in Wilson’s first career start.
McDonald and the Warriors caught a huge break when he was stripped by Zac Dawe, only to have replay officials overturn the on-field call of a BYU recovery, saying the QB’s knee was down before Dawe ripped the ball away. Ryan Meskell booted a 46-yard field goal the next play to give UH a 24-14 lead.
Wilson was intercepted twice (the first pick was deflected and not entirely his fault), fumbled at the goal line to cost his team precious points and couldn’t come up with a first down — the play call was also suspect — on that critical third-and-2 situation with BYU clinging to a 34-31 lead that will be rehashed for years.
Wilson’s intense and usually admirable competitiveness got the best of him when he made a reckless attempt to leap over two UH defenders at the goal line with the game tied at 31 when the more prudent action would have been to secure the ball first.
Still, Wilson should be credited for recovering well enough from that highlight-reel hit to lead the Cougars to the UH 3 on their next possession; They had to settle for a 20-yard field goal, though, emblematic of another perceived season-long Wilson shortcoming: red-zone inefficiency.
Leading 34-31 with 4:07 remaining, BYU had a 90 percent chance of winning, according to the ESPN FPI. Then came the critical mistakes — the incomplete pass to Micah Simon, and the game-ending interception.
That pick, Wilson’s ninth of the season, came on first down from the Hawaii 39 with less than a minute left. With the Cougars driving and having two timeouts, it was shaping up to be another Tennessee-like moment for Wilson. And then it wasn’t.
“From what I saw, the defender (Khoury Bethley) made a great play,” Sitake said. “He undercut the route. I think we had some other routes that were available, too. But that was one Zach felt comfortable with. I thought we were in a really good position, where we were at as a team.”
Now the coach is in a difficult position, along with offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick as BYU — which finished 7-6 for the second straight year, but without the momentum and goodwill a bowl victory provided last year — heads into the offseason with plenty of questions to answer, including the big one at quarterback.
Sitake often resorts to coachspeak in situations such as this, and will almost certainly again when spring ball begins in early March. Answering a question about why it took so long for Tyler Allgeier (eight carries, 77 yards, all in the second half) to get into the game, he turned to a familiar refrain.
“Yeah, I mean our guys compete and whoever wins the spot in practice and through our prep is the one that is going to play the bulk of the reps,” Sitake said. “For a lot of our stuff, we can only start one running back at a time. So, whatever gets us points on the board.”
Or, in the case of the starting quarterback, it should seemingly be whoever gets the Cougars wins. And on a picturesque day in paradise, that quarterback wasn’t the one who started the final four games for BYU in 2019.
Let the debate begin.