For the first time, Jon Hays became Utah’s quarterback by beating someone else out.
Always the replacement, the backup with durable shoulders, Hays led Utah to a 24-21 win over Brigham Young on Saturday in the first game of the post-Jordan Wynn Era.
Coach Kyle Whittingham’s decision to start the gifted freshman Travis Wilson would not have been surprising, but was in doubt after a week in which Whittingham said the two were even in the competition for the starting job.
After winning the spot, nothing the former Nebraska-Omaha quarterback did on Saturday hurt his candidacy to keep it.
Whittingham said Hays edged out Wilson in a close competition, with his experience (6-3 as a starter last season) and the fact it was a rivalry game leading to the decision.
“If it would have been game one of the season, it might have been a 50-50 split and let them each play one half and see how they did,” Whittingham said.
Hays completed 18 of his 27 attempts for 196 yards and two touchdowns. His 39-yard touchdown pass to Dres Anderson with 57 seconds remaining in the third quarter put Utah up 24-7 and was the kind of stretch-the-field play Utah fans clamored for during early stages of the season.
“We’d run the same play earlier and barely missed it,” Hays said.
Between Hays and Riley Nelson, the Ute was the more composed of the two in his first rivalry game start. It came on a night the Utes needed an especially sterling effort from their quarterback, with star tailback John White sidelined by an ankle injury.
“I was more prepared for it this year, and I think my play showed that,” Hays said.
The experience seemed to give him an advantage over Wilson, who won over fans quickly by scoring two rushing touchdowns in the opener against Northern Colorado and throwing for one more in last week’s 27-20 overtime loss at Utah State.
However, it was Hays who once again replaced Wynn for the bulk of the Utah State game, and Hays who threw what would have been the game-tying touchdown in overtime were it not called off to an offensive pass interference call on Jake Murphy.
Earlier in the week, Whittingham said Wilson would remain what he calls the “change-up” quarterback if Hays were named the starter.
The freshman from San Clemente had two carries for 1 yard and did not attempt a pass.