Outlined against a blue-gray December sky, two relatively mediocre football teams, BYU and Western Michigan, outfits that had 11 losses between them, rode in and lived up to that description in the first half here at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Let’s say it the way it was: The Cougars, in particular, absolutely blew, certainly on offense.
There were no horsemen on hand, not four, not three, not two, not one.
BYU had neither Famine and Pestilence, nor Destruction and Death working their wonders on Friday afternoon. Sloppiness and Ineptitude, Mistakes and Insufficiency would have to do. Nobody could have found much poetry in what went on, not for the Cougars, early on at Albertsons Stadium. Only clean-up needed in aisles 1 through 20.
And then …
And then … what in the name of Grantland Rice just happened?
Zach Wilson came alive, and his teammates awakened, too, and BYU romped to a 49-18 victory.
As though enchanted dust had been sprinkled on their heads, Wilson’s entire offense transformed itself from a bunch of plodders into Drew Brees’ Saints. It put on a memorable performance that folks in Provo had been looking and hoping for — but rarely finding — all season long. The freshman quarterback hit 18 straight passes, a school record, the second-best streak ever in a bowl game, many of the longer ones coming over that final half.
Kalani Sitake had been asked before the game how he expected his quarterback to play in his first bowl game. “Perfectly,” he said.
“That’s the intention before every game,” said Wilson, afterward.
And that’s exactly what Sitake and Wilson got.
“All he’s done is gotten better, mentally and physically,” senior receiver Dylan Collie said about the young QB.
All told, Wilson completed 18 of 18 passes for 317 yards and four touchdowns, most of that damage coming in the third quarter. The Cougars jetted from a total of 115 yards, just 20 on the ground, through the initial two quarters, yardage that reaped them just seven points, to 220 yards gained in the third alone and 28 points.
“BYU made some big plays,” Western Michigan defender Alex Grace said.
That explosion continued through the fourth quarter, even as the Cougars eased up on the throttle, the outcome completely decided.
In a nice touch, Tanner Mangum entered the game in the closing minutes, the senior quarterback from Boise allowed to finish his college career on the same field where his football dreams started, some 10 years earlier in a high school playoff game. He completed a 41-yard pass and handed the ball off.
For much of the 2018 season, search as they may have, the Cougars couldn’t find playmakers anywhere, and then, inside of a few blinks here, they couldn’t throw a rock in any direction without hitting one.
That offense went full-on berserk.
The hell with the Four Horsemen. BYU had 10 of them all mounted up, led by Wilson, who fired the ball around the yard as though he at last had been set loose from the shackles that had bound him for two months, since he became the starter.
Said Sitake: “I’ve been trying to let Zach loose for some time now.”
Better in the Potato Bowl than never.
Wilson had targets here, there, everywhere, connecting with eight different receivers. Collie (two TDs, 124 yards), Aleva Hifo (one TD, 85 yards), Matt Bushman (four catches, 52 yards), led the catching and diving, but darn-near everybody was in the pool.
A BYU run game that had been badly hampered by injuries — Squally Canada, Lopini Katoa, Matt Hadley were all out — and ineffective through that first half, got legs in the second from Riley Burt, who gained 110 yards and scored one touchdown.
It should be noted that all of this happened against the 103rd-ranked scoring defense in the land, a Western Michigan group from the MAC that had yielded 33 points a game.
But nobody on the BYU side thought much about that.
The way the Cougars saw it, this postseason win, modest though it was, announced the re-ignition and re-emergence of a BYU offense that, as mentioned, had been missing for much of the year.
“Their quarterback had a great day,” WMU coach Tim Lester said.
Collie went a bit further, blowing through reality to fantasy. “I truly believe [Wilson] will be one of, if not the greatest quarterback in BYU history.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa.
Not even a blue-gray December sky, references to the Four Horsemen or Rice’s prose, could overstate this Potato Bowl win any more than that.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.