Focus is on the freshmen quarterbacks as BYU, Western Michigan face off in Potato Bowl Friday on Boise State’s blue turf

Cougars can put some momentum back into their football program with a victory at Albertsons Stadium over the 7-5 Broncos

BYU freshman Zach Wilson almost rallied the Cougars to an upset win over Boise State seven weeks ago, but was sacked on the 4-yard line as time expired in a 21-16 loss. He gets a shot at Western Michigan Friday in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. (AP Photo/Steve Conner)

Boise • Of the 39 college football bowl games that have been played, or will be played, this month and next, only one will feature a pair of true freshmen starting quarterbacks — the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Friday afternoon at Albertsons Stadium.

With not much else to sell about a game that will be played in 30-degree temperatures on blue turf, bowl organizers and coaches made the pitch at a Thursday news conference to watch the 18-year-olds in the 2 p.m. matchup between 6-6 BYU and 7-5 Western Michigan.

“It is pretty unique,” said Western Michigan coach Tim Lester, who signed a two-year contract extension Thursday that will take him through the 2023 season.

The game pitting BYU freshman QB Zach Wilson and WMU freshman QB Kaleb Eleby will be televised by ESPN. The teams haven’t met since 1970 and the Cougars are 12-point favorites in their 36th bowl appearance.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake said he also excited about the matchup of quarterbacks who were wrapping up their high school careers at this time last year and joked that he expects Wilson to play “perfectly” in his second game in Boise in seven weeks.

“That’s what I am praying for — perfect play from everyone,” Sitake said. “Zach, individually, just has to do his job. He doesn’t have to do anything crazy, just stay within the realm of his responsibilities, and we will be fine.”

For BYU, the game represents a chance to end an up-and-down season with some momentum heading into 2019, when the Cougars face another daunting early schedule that starts Aug. 29 at home against Utah and also includes a trip to Tennessee and visits from USC and Washington.

Wilson, who once committed to the school that normally occupies the home-team locker room here, Boise State, has started the last six games since relieving ineffective senior Tanner Mangum (a Boise native) and has thrown for 1,261 yards and eight touchdowns. He is 3-3 as a starter and has also rushed for 198 yards and two TDs.

Senior offensive lineman Austin Hoyt said Wilson has been “fun to work with” and has shown remarkable poise.

“The memory I have of Zach in the huddle, he just got to the line and as he was calling a play, he just looked over at [Tristen Hoge] and I and just gave us a wink, a sly little smile. He is always having fun out there when he is playing.”

Eleby replaced injured junior Jon Wassink in the Broncos’ ninth game, against Toledo, and threw for 293 yards and two TDs against the Rockets. He started in losses to Ohio and Ball State before delivering a 28-21 win over Northern Illinois, the Mid-American Conference team that knocked off punchless BYU 7-6 in Provo in Wilson’s second start.

“I know Kalani is dealing with the same thing,” Lester said.

The coach said Eleby “had an unbelievable maturity about him” when he recruited him out of Maryland Heights, Mo. Like Wilson, Eleby graduated high school early and joined the program in January.

“The thing that is special about him is his arm. When he breaks his hands to throw the ball, he throws it as good as anyone I’ve ever seen, and anyone I’ve ever coached,” Eleby said.

Both coaches said the team that can establish the run game first and take pressure off its young quarterback will thrive in the cold. Weather forecasts call for a mixture of snow and rain in the Treasure Valley on Thursday night and temperatures in the high 30s at kickoff.

“A big focus of ours is just being physical, especially in the run game,” Hoyt said. “We need to get off the ball and get on guys and be able to drive them down the field. I think that’s probably one of our biggest keys is to be able to be physical and dominate the line of scrimmage as much as we can and run the ball.”

Western Michigan linebacker Alex Grace said the Broncos are wary of Wilson’s running ability.

“We will focus on keeping that quarterback contained because he can run pretty well,” said Grace, WMU’s second-leading tackler with 80 takedowns in 12 games.

The Cougars will once again be shorthanded on both sides of the ball. Sitake said Wednesday that freshman running back Lopini Katoa (knee) will be a game-time decision and sophomore linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi probably won’t play.

Running back Squally Canada and receiver Gunner Romney have not been practicing in Boise as they’ve tried to recover from various ailments.

“The main thing about this trip is getting to this game and being ready to play,” Sitake said. “I think our preparation has been really good and I am excited to see these guys play.”


At Albertsons Stadium, Boise, Idaho

Kickoff • Friday, 2 p.m.


Radio • KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

Records • BYU 6-6, Western Michigan 7-5

Series history • BYU leads 3-2

Last meeting • WMU 35, BYU 17 (Sept. 19, 1970)

About the Broncos • They are making their fourth bowl appearance in the last five seasons and ninth in school history. They are in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl for the second time, having lost 38-24 to Air Force here in 2014. … They have scored 40 or more points in five games and average more than 33 points per game. … True freshman Kaleb Eleby replaced injured starter Jon Wassink at quarterback midway through the season and has thrown for 917 yards and four touchdowns.

About the Cougars • Freshman quarterback Zach Wilson has started in their last six games and has thrown for 1,261 yards and eight touchdowns while also rushing for 198 yards and two TDs. … Freshman RB Lopini Katoa, who leads BYU in rushing with 423 yards and eight touchdowns, will be a game-time decision after missing the 35-27 loss to Utah with a knee injury. … They are playing in their 36th bowl game, and are back in a bowl after missing one last year for the first time since 2004. … Coach Kalani Sitake has a 19-19 record in his third season at BYU.