Gordon Monson: Zach Wilson conjures a night to remember for BYU, and almost certainly a goodbye

BYU's Lopini Katoa stretches out for a catch late in the second quarter against Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl NCAA college football game Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, in Boca Raton, Fla. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

It was a familiar-but-uncommon tale, a proper one, what BYU faced in the Boca Raton Bowl on Tuesday night at FAU Stadium, a few Zach Wilson bombs from South Florida’s beaches.

For just the sixth time this season, the Cougars ran into — as it turned out, ran over — a challenge from a semi-legitimate foe, this time the UCF Knights. And that challenge presented for them an opportunity, the chance to confirm their standing — in this case, to punctuate it in a postseason game — against an opponent that actually carried with it a dose of respect.

And that’s exactly what BYU did, in a way that was more pronounced than anyone had imagined. The final numbers up on the board: BYU 49, UCF 23.

And Wilson … he went, as the kids say, cray-cray.

He did more than that. He went out the door, into the warm Florida night, playing like a man headed for the NFL.

The junior quarterback, in bursts of brilliance, was saying goodbye to BYU with every throw — he’s almost certain to enter the draft, as he’s been projected as an early first-round pick — waving away with a performance to remember. He destroyed the UCF defense, throwing for 425 yards and three touchdowns, scampering for another two.

He had adequate help on attack — receivers finding openings everywhere, the offensive line giving Wilson an ample comfort zone and clearing the way for Tyler Allgeier to run for 173 yards.

It looked easy. It was easy.

The biggest question about the offense was: Where’s Jeff Grimes?

The O-coordinator was absent from the game.

BYU missed him not at all.

Even the defense did its part.

And so it was that a season shaped by and always played in the shadow of a pandemic, BYU having managed 11 regular-season games, but … really, it righteously played less than half that many legitimates — against Navy, Boise State, Houston, Coastal Carolina and San Diego State, was finished with one last convincer.

Another impressive showing against a team that was unlike many of the others, an opponent against which BYU didn’t know the result before it ever walked on the field.

This one took … oh, about four minutes.

By that time, the Cougars already were up, 14-zip, on their way to 21-0, and rolling. They led 35-10 at the half, having gained in excess of 400 yards, 330 of them coming off the arm of Wilson. Let us repeat, at … the … half.

This thing was as breezy as the warm ocean winds in Boca Raton.

And the Knights weren’t dogs. They came in at 6-3, representing the same program that had gone undefeated in 2017 and 12-1 in 2018, and that this season had dropped their three games by a combined 12 points. They lost to Cincinnati by three.

This was different than slapping around North Alabama or Texas State or Troy. Yes, we know the scrambled schedule was not BYU’s fault, but it had both benefited and dragged down the Cougars, simultaneously providing easy wins and forcing them to justify themselves, to take a distant road game against ranked Coastal Carolina two days before it was to be played, all to prove that their other success was more about them, less about the poor saps they so handily defeated.

And while UCF lacks the blue blood and bones of P5 teams like, say, Florida, it nonetheless was a considerable step up from 2020′s norm.

But just like it did against Boise State, BYU made the Knights look like all the rest.

The real difficulty here was always going to be stopping the UCF offense, which was highly ranked nationally, including being second in the country in yards gained per game — 586. A Cougar defense that had appeared vulnerable against Coastal Carolina, unable to stop long drives as the Chanticleers successfully played keep-away from Wilson, was up for the battle this time.

Most of the yards BYU allowed came late, by way of the arm of Dillon Gabriel, a rare quarterback whose compiled throwing stats — not necessarily his talent — were pretty much the equal of Wilson’s. UCF’s run game wasn’t able to keep drives alive, not enough to keep up.

The conclusion?

This 11-1 BYU team will be remembered now as an exceptional one, led by an even more exceptional quarterback. That combination lifted the Cougars to a loftier position than they had enjoyed in a long time. A combo that might have done well against its original schedule — with all those P5 opponents on it — and much better than any BYU outfit could have since the program went independent.

Nobody will ever know with exactness about that. Guessing that it would will be a BYU claim, though, a standard, for years to come.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.