BYU QB Zach Wilson’s remarkable improvement on display again for 6,000 fans, national TV audience
No. 12 Cougars could have gone for more points, and more style points, while drubbing Texas State 52-14 on Saturday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium, but coach Kalani Sitake called off the dogs early for the fourth time in six games.
PROVO — Zach Wilson is human after all, although you can’t blame the latest victim of the BYU quarterback’s phenomenal start to the 2020 season for not really believing that.
Wilson let a high snap from backup center Joe Tukuafu zip through his fingers deep in the Cougars’ territory on Saturday night against Texas State at LaVell Edwards Stadium, then unsuccessfully tried to scoop it up, then tried to pounce on the loose ball but was beat to it by the Bobcats’ Hal Vinson, giving the visitors possession at BYU’s 10.
It was eerily similar to a play nine years ago, and not far from a spot where Jake Heaps tried doing the same thing against Utah, with devastating results. It is probably the play the former five-star recruit is most remembered for during his brief two years in Provo.
Meanwhile, Wilson could easily be remembered for the play he made next, if for no other reason than it showed the junior’s remarkable improvement, a gain in skills, arm strength and poise that has him rightfully in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy.
After BYU’s defense bowed up and kept Texas State from cutting into its three-touchdown lead with a big fourth-and-goal stop, Wilson made a throw that made him look super-human. He spotted his housemate Dax Milne alone on the opposite side of the field and fired a strike from the 50-yard line that traveled a good 65 yards in the air, at least, for the touchdown in an eventual 52-14 BYU win.
“I’ve never seen that before.” — BYU tight end Isaac Rex on a cross-field throw made by quarterback Zach Wilson
“Yeah, really strong arm, and we have seen him do that over and over and over again,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake. “It is not new, how strong his arm is. … It was a pinpoint throw.”
From a long, long ways away.
“I’ve never seen that before,” marveled tight end Isaac Rex, the recipient of two of Wilson’s four TD tosses on a chilly, breezy night in Provo.
Wilson’s final numbers, muted a bit because he completed only one pass in the second half — a 30-yard touchdown throw to Rex — and didn’t play the final 25 minutes and 47 seconds of the contest: 19 of 25 passing for 287 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions and a passer rating of 225.2.
It was the seventh game in his career in which Wilson has posted a passer rating of 200 or more, moving him past Max Hall, Steve Sarkisian and Ty Detmer for most 200-plus games in BYU history.
“Man, Zach this whole season has been killing it,” Rex said. “He’s a first-round draft pick.”
Wilson has now thrown 157 straight passes without a pick, the second-longest streak ever for a BYU quarterback. The Bobcats did snare one of Wilson’s throws, but defender Jarron Morris needed to knock down Milne to do it and was flagged for pass interference, negating the play he will want to tell his kids about some day, if and when Wilson plays professionally.
Baylor Romney, who relieved Wilson with 6:01 remaining in the third quarter, was intercepted in the third quarter, snapping BYU’s four-game streak of throwing no picks, but the Cougars kept TSU from scoring after that turnover as well. BYU’s defense has not allowed any points after five turnovers this season.
“Really pleased with the amount of disruption we had in this game,” Sitake said.
The offensive balance wasn’t bad either, although the Cougars failed to have a 100-yard receiver for the first time in six outings. Milne finished with 89 yards.
No fewer than 14 BYU players caught passes Saturday night, including Wilson himself, a 16-yarder from Neil Pau’u.
So the Cougars improved to 6-0, the first time they’ve been 6-0 since 2008, and Wilson’s legend grew even more, his Heisman campaign gaining as much steam as could be expected against an opponent of which most of the country is unfamiliar.
Not that Sitake cares much about that.
“I don’t really care about how all the stats line up. I don’t care about where we line up with awards and all the accolades and that stuff. The winning is all that matters and keeping us as deep as possible,” Sitake said.
But winning big can’t hurt, especially in the beauty contests that the rankings have become.
Get ready for a repeat of that next week when BYU hosts Western Kentucky.
And it should be noted that it was midnight in the Eastern Time Zone when the first half ended with BYU leading 35-7 and many voters — both for postseason awards and weekly rankings — had probably hit the sack.
Wilson was 18 for 21 for 257 yards and three TDs in the first half alone. He led BYU on TD drives of 94, 90, 86, 71 and 60 yards. Counting the last two possessions in the 43-26 win over Houston last week, BYU posted six-straight TD drives before Wilson’s misplayed snap ended the remarkable streak.
Wilson made just one off-target throw, a third-and-7 ball that sailed over Milne’s head three plays into the second half. Alas, the Bobcats roughed BYU punter Ryan Rehkow a play later, giving the Cougars life.
Wilson, given plenty of time to throw all night by a veteran offensive line, hit Rex in the end zone and his night was done. After Isaiah Kaufusi returned an interception 32 yards for a touchdown — a pick-six similar to one San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner had against Boise State a few years ago — the Cougars were up 49-7 and Sitake called off the dogs.
That’s notable, because on a day when No. 5 Ohio State punched in a last-second touchdown to beat Nebraska 52-17, Sitake stuck to his guns about not chasing style points.
It looked a bit like that when Rehkow executed a fake punt on fourth-and-inches with 6:50 remaining in the game and BYU leading 49-14, and he took it 49 yards to the Texas State 17. But Sitake didn’t call for the fake — Rehkow pulled the ball down and took off on his own — and with 4:44 left Sitake sent Jake Oldroyd in for a 28-yard field goal rather than try to better the Cougars’ red-zone touchdown percentage that he and the offensive coaches care so much about.
“We have that rugby punt (in) and if it is there, he takes it,” Sitake said. “I mean, personally I wish he would have kicked it. That’s just me. But he did exactly what we coach (in that situation).”
Sitake said he apologized to TSU coach Jake Spavital after the game.
“It wasn’t anything disrespectful or with any intent to run up the score or anything,” he said. “It was just something (Rehkow) is used to seeing in practice. … That is on me. I should have been more wise in telling him to just go ahead and punt the ball.”
Aside from being “caught off-guard,” in Sitake’s words, by Texas State’s bizarre-looking early offensive formations that enabled it to drive 75 yards on eight plays for a game-opening touchdown, BYU’s defense was as stout as it has been against inferior competition.
The visitors came out with only three down offensive linemen — two guards and a center — and culminated the drive with Marcel Barbee’s 19-yard touchdown reception from starter Brady McBride.
“They went to some Daffy Duck stuff,” Sitake told the BYU Radio Network at halftime, a reference to some formations and verbiage used by the Utah Utes nearly 30 years ago.
Texas State’s other TD came after a 96-yard drive against BYU’s second- and third-stringers.
Sitake wasn’t happy about that, but he defended the practice of clearing the bench in blowouts as soon as he believes the Cougars have the game in hand.
“It may cost us some yards, and even some points, but the investment is really worth it for our guys, and it is paying off,” he said.
Because in the coach’s mind, style points are overrated. But Zach Wilson certainly is not.