Boise, Idaho

Kalani Sitake broke his own world record for hugs in a college football postgame on Friday night, after his BYU Cougars beat Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl by the rousing count of 49-18.

The Big Hug embraced coaches here and players there, the guy to the right of him, the gal to the left, a thousand guys to the right, another thousand gals to the left, before he walked out of Albertsons Stadium, grinning straight into the dark.

He was ecstatic about the way his team had played, in a manner that had escaped the Cougars for much of the season. It threatened to escape them again over the first 30 minutes of a game that was anything but handsome through that initial span.

But then, oh, that next half made up for a dozen lousy ones this season. BYU’s offense exploded for 42 points, playing the kind of aggressive football Sitake had been calling for since August, but rarely getting: “That was BYU football,” he said.

That was the way LaVell’s teams used to play it, a way that had a no in front of it for what in Sitake’s mind had been far too long.

“I’ve been trying to let Zach [Wilson] loose for a long time now,” Sitake said. “I think an aggressive style of football is what we need to have on offense.”

He was excited about the lingering effect that performance might have on his team over an offseason that needed as much energy and hope poured into it as the coach possibly could conjure.

Wilson, the freshman quarterback, who didn’t throw a single pass in the bowl game that wasn’t caught, agreed: “Yeah, I think this was a must for us. We didn’t get the win against Utah, but I think we proved a lot with what we are capable of on offense. We wanted to build on that this game and we knew we had to play well. I think this is great momentum building into our offseason.”

Suddenly, a 7-6 record was the start of something big, at least in the view of players who had weathered their share of highs and lows during an uneven schedule with uneven results. Nearly 400 yards of offense in that second half, along with 42 points has that effect.

In the postgame, players celebrated, patting one another on the shoulders, heads and backs, jumping around like kernels of corn on a hot fryer. An uninformed observer might have thought BYU had just finished an undefeated season, won some kind of championship.

This to them was bigger than just that. This was an act of rescue.

What the Cougars did for themselves in the Potato Bowl, again, as they saw it, was pull their program out of a burning dumpster. They saved it from a second-straight losing season, literally and figuratively, numerically and symbolically. They had erased from their minds the pain of last season’s 4-9 disaster, and all the six losses they had suffered through this last time around.

Now, they were winners. It mattered little that the launch to that end was a triumph over an opponent that had finished tied for fifth with two other teams in the Mid-American Conference. That was a mere footnote.

Big statements were made after Wilson’s perfect performance, good for 317 yards and four touchdowns, and the offense’s stirring of seven TDs. The last time BYU had played a team (NIU) from the MAC, on the Cougars’ home field no less, it labored through a humiliating 7-6 loss.

That seemed like a different time, a different team, wholly set apart from the athletes who walked away with Sitake here.

They all got swept up in the emotion of the moment, headlined by senior receiver Dylan Collie’s proclamations that this was just the beginning, that Wilson would eventually become one of the greatest quarterbacks, if not the greatest, in BYU’s history.

“To see an 18- or 19-year-old kid in Zach Wilson and what’s going to happen in the next three years, yeah, he set a high bar for himself, but I’ll go ahead and set the bar even higher.”

Before anybody falls for that, they should remember that another freshman QB at BYU who threw for four touchdowns in a bowl game was … what’s this, uh-oh, Jake Heaps.

So, there’s that.

What BYU’s Potato Bowl victory really meant was that the Cougars were superior to an average team from the MAC, that there might be promise in the future for an offense that far too often this past season was lifeless and listless, led now by a confident young quarterback with time on his side.

We’ll leave the comparisons of Wilson to Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Ty Detmer to Collie, knowing full well that the senior receiver may have gotten just a little ahead of himself.

And the win meant one other thing for BYU.

It meant that the playmakers the Cougars lacked for so much of the 2018 season, guys who couldn’t get open, couldn’t beat their man, couldn’t go deep, couldn’t, at times, run clean routes and catch the ball, might have been there all along.

Is that good news or bad? Is it praise or an indictment? Is it the truth or a mirage?

Figuring that out will roll all the way into next fall. There’s room inside the Cougars’ own minds for optimism, and a warning, too, that maybe, just maybe, it was a fluke, or simply a favorable matchup against a lesser opponent.

We’ll get to the bottom of that at the end of August, through September, when BYU plays Utah, Tennessee, USC, and Washington in consecutive weeks. That’s when we’ll know with exactness if what happened on Friday in Boise meant anything lastingly positive at all. If Sitake is reaching his big arms out and around, hugging the world still.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.