Boise • After accepting the Most Valuable Player trophy, biting a chunk out of a raw potato and taking pictures with dozens of fans and teammates, Famous Idaho Potato Bowl MVP Zach Wilson made his way to the postgame news conference Friday to talk about his flawless performance in BYU’s 49-18 win over Western Michigan.
“I think this was a must [win] for us,” Wilson said.
The alternative, a loss to a mid-level Mid-American Conference team they were favored to beat by nearly two touchdowns, would have been devastating to the Cougars’ late-season momentum. But Wilson saved the day — and the season, really — by rallying his team to 35 unanswered points after it trailed 10-7 at halftime and looked like the squad that inexplicably lost to WMU’s league-mate, Northern Illinois, in late October.
Wilson and his playmaking teammates (where were Matt Bushman, Neil Pau’u, Dylan Collie and Aleva Hifo in the 7-6 loss to NIU?) also saved themselves, head coach Kalani Sitake and his offensive staff a lot of explaining in the offseason.
For instance: Whose idea was it to call that trick play in the second quarter that resulted in the Cougars’ only turnover and drastically shifted the momentum to WMU’s favor? And why?
Another puzzler, this one for special teams coach Ed Lamb: Why leave a freshman in the game to let him get a duplicate roughing-the-punter penalty? Over-zealous rookie linebacker Max Tooley did just that.
The Cougars (7-6) overcame all that adversity nicely — something they failed to do in four close losses to Cal, NIU, Utah and Boise State that could have made a mediocre season a special one — and head into the offseason feeling pretty good about themselves.
“We didn’t get the win against Utah [last month], but I think we proved a lot of what we are capable of on offense,” Wilson said. “We wanted to build on that and we knew that we had to play well. This is a great momentum builder into our offseason.”
And there will be no doubt about who is the leader on offense.
“We’re going to make sure everyone is on top of each other and making sure we are all getting better together and making sure guys are coming out and throwing and catching,” Wilson said. “Guys are excited about what’s to come for BYU football.”
Obviously, nobody would have been saying that if the Cougars had finished the season with a losing record. Funny what a difference a good half of football can make.
• BYU’s offensive line got off to a rocky start with a couple of holding penalties (one was declined), a false start and two sacks, but dominated the second half. Western Michigan coach Tim Lester said freshman center James Empey was the best center they faced this season. Every OL contributor except graduating right tackle Austin Hoyt returns.
• Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki took some heat early in the season when Washington and Utah State sliced through the Cougar defense. But his unit got better and better, despite some costly season-ending injuries to stars such as Zayne Anderson and Corbin Kaufusi, and was tough in the second half when the Broncos picked up just 121 yards.
• Senior linebacker Sione Takitaki, whose turnaround story is one of my favorites in 11 seasons covering BYU football, made himself some money Friday with 19 tackles. “Credit to all the guys,” he said, deflecting praise. “Defensive linemen were taking on two guys, and I am just running free to make plays.”
Play of the Game
• Wilson’s 48-yard pass to Neil Pau’u that set up BYU’s go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. The catch-and-run didn’t go for a touchdown — Dylan Collie would catch an 8-yard TD pass a few plays later — but it jump-started an offense that picked up just 115 yards in the first half.
“That throw, the first play in the second half, that throw he had, he got hit while he threw it, because I was watching from the pressure, and it was right over the middle,” said WMU coach Tim Lester. “It as a heckuva throw.”
Player of the Game
• Wilson, who completed 18 of 18 passes for 317 yards and four touchdowns. Although Takitaki, Collie and Riley Burt had career games, this one is a no-brainer. Wilson played flawlessly. Enough said.
The Cougars already have it circled on their calendars. BYU hosts Utah on Aug. 29, desperately needing to snap the Utes’ eight-game winning streak in the 100th game in the series. Kickoff is 250 days away. Let the hype begin.
“We’re starting to find out who we are as an offense and starting to figure out who we are as a team and what we’re the best at,” Wilson said. “It’s just going up from here.”