Provo • Struggling and offensively challenged BYU turned to Zach Wilson on Saturday night hoping for a spark of some sort from the quarterback who was busy getting Draper’s Corner Canyon High ready for the state playoffs at this time last season.
Aided by some willing teammates who just seemed to play better with Wilson in the lineup, the seventh true freshman to start at quarterback for BYU engineered an offensive outburst not seen in Provo since 2016.
Replacing senior Tanner Mangum in the starting lineup for the first time this season, Wilson managed the game well, played mostly mistake-free and contributed to the rushing attack with a nifty 23-yard jaunt to the end zone. The Cougars got back in the win column after consecutive lopsided losses to Washington and Utah State with a 49-23 win over Hawaii in front of an announced crowd of 52,354 at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The Cougars improved to 4-3 while scoring the most points since hanging 52 on UMass two years ago, while Hawaii fell to 6-2 and still has never won in Provo, dropping to 0-10 here.
Wilson was helped by something Mangum didn’t enjoy during the Cougars’ losing streak — a rushing attack. BYU rushed for more than 250 yards and the freshman threw for 194 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception.
“He is confident in his ability to throw, but he can also run it,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake told the BYU radio network before the game. “We will see what he can do, but it is a good time for him to take over, and provide us with a spark.”
That he did.
Seemingly energized by the midseason change and the rare benching of a senior quarterback, BYU played one of its best halves of the season in jumping to a 28-3 lead.
Wilson could not have gotten off to a better start. He led the Cougars on touchdown drives on their first two possessions, and his quarterback rating was through roof. It was the first time since the San Jose State game in 2017 that the Cougars have scored on consecutive possessions.
The 14 points doubled their first-quarter output for the entire season, and the opening touchdown drive was the first time they’ve scored on their first possession in 2018.
Lopini Katoa galloped 12 yards for the first touchdown after Sitake gambled on 4th-and-1, and Wilson ran for his first career TD on a third-and-15 situation, making a UH defender miss at about the 15 and jetting to the end zone.
But just when BYU fans were about to proclaim the 19-year-old should have been playing the entire season, he made a freshman mistake. Two, actually.
Hawaii linebacker Solomon Matautia dropped a sure interception when Wilson underthrew a receiver. But in what looked like a replay of that miscue the very next play, UH’s Rojesterman Farris hauled in a pick.
Wilson recovered nicely. On the next possession, he fired a beautiful strike to Talon Shumway for 16 yards and the Cougars did the rest of the work on the ground. Former linebacker Matt Hadley’s first career touchdown run went for 21 yards and gave the Cougars a 21-0 lead with 7:24 remaining in the second quarter.
Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald, the nation’s second-leading passer, finally found a rhythm midway through the second quarter. His 42-yard pass to Cedric Byrd got the Warriors deep into BYU territory. However, BYU’s defense forced three straight incompletions from its 15, and UH settled for a 33-yard field goal from Ryan Meskell.
McDonald still got his yards — he was 21 of 35 for 247 yards and two touchdowns with seven minutes remaining — but the bulk came after halftime.
Austin Lee’s first career interception, which he returned 36 yards to the Hawaii 13, set up BYU’s fourth touchdown of the first half. Freshman tight end Dallin Holker caught a 13-yard TD pass from Wilson, the first TD catch of Holker’s career and the first TD pass of Wilson’s career.
The 28 points were the most in a first half against an FBS opponent in Sitake’s four-year tenure.
Riley Burt ran 4 yards for a touchdown and Wilson threw 24- and 26-yard touchdown passes to Aleva Hifo and Gunner Romney in the second half.
BYU 49, Hawaii 23
• Zach Wilson becomes the seventh true freshman to start at quarterback for BYU and leads the Cougars to their fourth win of the season.
• Hawaii falls to 6-2 and remains winless at LaVell Edwards Stadium, dropping to 0-10 all-time in Provo
• The Cougars will take a 4-3 record into their bye week and face Northern Illinois on Oct. 27 at LES