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Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson holds up the MVP trophy after the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. BYU won 49-23.
Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson holds up the MVP trophy after the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. BYU won 49-23.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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If this was his college exit, BYU’s Zach Wilson put on show to remember

BYU quarterback helped lead Cougars to the biggest offensive explosion in school history with 655 yards in win over Central Florida

Welcome to the Boca Ra … er, um, Zach Wilson Bowl.

In what many believe was BYU quarterback Wilson’s swan song as he is expected to head for the NFL as a projected first-round draft pick, the junior put on a prime-time show Tuesday night.

Wilson completely swamped a confused University of Central Florida defense before an ESPN audience, which saw No. 13 BYU race to a 39-point lead, then coast to a 49-23 victory. BYU elected to take a knee for the final plays of the game near UCF’s goal line, yielding a chance for a school bowl scoring record (52).

Playing a team that lost to undefeated No. 6 Cincinnati by 3 (36-33) in AAC play, Wilson ran for two touchdowns and threw for three others. On the night, BYU averaged 9 yards a play.

Wilson finished 26 of 34 for 425 yards, 76.4% accuracy with a 210 efficiency rating. He threw for 333 yards and accounted for five TDs before halftime. The Cougars had 220 yards passing in the first quarter (a BYU record) and busted the 1989 Ty Detmer-led school record (then an NCAA record) for bowl yardage against Penn State (651) with 655 versus the Knights.

Wilson showed off his arm strength, pinpoint accuracy, laserlike focus, ability to process and filter through progressions. He simply caught UCF blinking and put on an off-Broadway show.

This was supposed to be a real track meet, a shootout between two of the nation’s top passing quarterbacks and chunk-play offenses. It was supposed to be a nightmare for both defenses, one of those mercy killings of corners and safeties.

But the Cougar defense registered a string of three-and-outs against UCF’s Dillon Gabriel. Gabriel’s offense had averaged 44 points a game. It was enough to give Wilson dominoes possessions, to hold a scalpel, and go to work on the nation’s 117th-ranked pass defense.

It was over right after kickoff.

It was a track meet alright, with one side sprinting past the other. Both teams were shorthanded with players opting out, injured or disqualified.

Wilson cut up UCF’s man defense early, then went to work on the Knights’ zone. He hit Dax Milne on crossing routes, found Tyler Allgeier on wheel routes. He then sent out Godzilla freshman Isaac Rex, who tied Jonny Harline for the most TD catches with his 12th of the season.

He had Lopini Katoa lay out for a flying, diving, gravity-defying 30-yard catch to set up a late third-quarter TD pass to Neil Pau’u. That was a career highlight play for Katoa. Pau’u’s TD put the Cougars up 35-7 with just over three minutes left before halftime.

Wilson’s placement of that 35-yard sideline bomb to a covered Pau’u displayed the type of throw that is comfort food for NFL scouts who rank him the second or third QB taken come draft day. His pass hit Pau’u right in the sternum in full stride inside the 6-yard line, in a position where Pau’u could use his momentum to easily score.

This allowed ESPN coverage to quickly break out a quote graphic of draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay.

“He has a stellar arm and can climb the pocket to find the open receiver. He’s the complete package.” — Kiper

“I love his competitiveness and toughness in the pocket, and he has a high-end ability to extend plays. His deep-ball accuracy is also outstanding.” — McShay

The Cougars have spent school history enduring futile trips to the state of Florida, losing to Florida State, Oklahoma State (twice), Miami, Memphis, South Florida, and about anybody else they tried to line up against.

Wilson helped this 2020 BYU team erase that streak in fine fashion this night, capping a 12-game, 11-win season during a COVID-19 pandemic year that brutalized most every program in America with cancellations and shortened seasons.

Who knows what the future holds for Wilson.

But in this, his junior season, he became the closest incarnation on the field of Jim McMahon the Cougar program has seen. His confidence and mastery of the QB reins was reflective of the former star.

Yes, it was against a far inferior schedule than he planned on back in July, but he could only go against what was in front of him.

Thanks for the highlights, Mr. Wilson. And hats off to Kalani Sitake and his staff who underwent hard things all year long with literally thousands of team COVID-19 tests, unexpected twists, turns and detours, all without complaint — just gratitude to play when others got just one-third the games and when the schedule once stood at just two games.

The Cougars finished 11-1, the first one-loss BYU team since 1996 (14-1). Wilson broke season and career percent completion records (73.5%) held by Hall of Famer Steve Young and Steve Sarkisian.

That’s a season to remember in anyone’s book.

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