Dick Harmon: Sophomore QBs will be huge in BYU-Utah showdown

Published: Monday, Sept. 16 2013 7:20 p.m. MDT

Utah's Travis Wilson races toward the end zone to score a touchdown as Weber State's Danny Mullarkey (90) gives chase at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

Neither guy is Johnny Football.

But one will need to become Manziel-like this weekend.

Travis Wilson and Taysom Hill have tons in common other than sharing the field when the Cougars and Utes meet Saturday in LaVell Edwards Stadium.

They both come off performances in which they ran crazy and defenders had no clue. Wilson’s jaunts should have earned Utah a Pac-12 opener win over Oregon State last Saturday. Two weeks ago, Hill’s performance earned him national recognition in a record-breaking outing against Texas.

The persona, the arms and legs, the minds and the raw talent of these two sophomore QBs loom huge in this game.

Who will feel more comfortable? Who will be more poised? Whose supporting cast will step up? Which guy will feel more pressure? Who faces more challenges from the defense and who can overcome mistakes?

This is the intriguing thing about this game, this QB position.

The raw facts: Wilson ranks No. 15 in the nation in pass efficiency at 172 with a 62 percent completion rate. Hill ranks 113th at 71 with a 30 percent completion rate. Hill is the nation’s No. 5 ranked rusher, averaging 150 yards per game. Wilson ranks 55th with 81.2 yards per game.

Historically, quarterbacks have made a big difference in this rivalry.

Last year, Utah defeated BYU because Jon Hays threw two touchdown passes and Moe Lee took a BYU center/QB fumble and ran 47 yards for another score.

Neither Wilson nor Hill had a part in that game. So this is new territory for both.

Utah has won three straight games against BYU. For the Cougars, QB play has been a big factor. The past three seasons, the Cougars have been shaky at the QB spot in facing great Ute defenses.

Utah got Jake Heaps his freshman year, playing for the injured Riley Nelson, and BYU took the air out of the ball after a long drive only to lose on a blocked field goal as time ran out. Utah then killed BYU and Heaps the following year in a 54-10 blowout in Provo. Last year, Utah got Riley Nelson one week after he broke his back after a hit by Weber State.

On the other hand, Utah has produced wins with supposedly shaky QB situations. This included last year with Hays, who eventually lost his job to Wilson. The year before in 2011, the Utes killed BYU 54-10 with injury-laden Jordan Wynn, who ended up hanging it up. And who can forget when Brett Ratliff came in for Brian Johnson in Provo in 2005 and threw off the inexperience cloak in leading Utah to a 41-34 victory?

In short, Utah has done better with QB challenges and BYU has struggled with QBs during Utah’s three-game win streak.

At BYU, a general rule is that when the Cougars have a great playmaker at QB, they end up having big seasons, win big games, including many with Utah, and end up ranked. When BYU struggles at the QB spot, they can be defeated by anybody and get average real quick.

The last times BYU defeated Utah, it came from big plays from Max Hall and John Beck. Hall earned a 26-23 overtime win on a TD throw to Andrew George in 2009, and his fourth-and-18 completion to Austin Collie led to a 17-10 win in 2007.

Beck experienced that game-winning TD pass to Jonny Harline with no time remaining at Rice-Eccles in 2006.

The theory is, without big-time QB play from BYU in the modern era, the Utes reign.

Wilson has been a huge bright spot for Utah so far this year. Despite three interceptions against Oregon State, Wilson kept coming back making plays until overtime.

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