Dick Harmon: Sophomore QBs will be huge in BYU-Utah showdown
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.
Hill, however, missed an opportunity to win a game at Virginia after an interception with just less than three minutes to play with BYU leading the Cavaliers. Then, he had a breakout highlight performance against then 15th-ranked Texas in which he ran the football at will and looked spectacular.
One could say Hill, whose accuracy has been questioned, has more to prove than Wilson, who was a top-10 pass efficiency passer last week. But is he capable of making big plays come Saturday — with his arm and legs?
Hill’s speed, size and athleticism is a factor. Like Wilson, Hill has the ability to run for touchdowns at any time.
Bronco Mendenhall, who has watched Hill run the ball 28 times for 316 yards in two games, said last week that that kind of run frequency is “not sustainable” for Hill for an entire season. “He can’t keep up that pace, it’s not reasonable. I’d like it if he could,” said BYU’s coach.
There is a question as to whether either one of these quarterbacks can run as much as they have against the defenses they will face come Saturday.
So, the onus is on Hill to be a passer, like Wilson.
“Taysom has a strong arm and he is accurate, I’ve seen it when working out with him,” said Beck, who now lives in San Diego. “I think it's just a matter of him getting more comfortable doing the things he’s doing.”
But according to Beck, when Hill takes to the run, it isn’t a skill set that anyone should take lightly.
“He is so strong and so fast and with his size, there aren’t too many people on the planet like him. You really can’t knock the guy for taking off because he’s so electric running the ball. I’d say don’t have him be the guy sitting back there, doing all the reads and checking down because his feet are just as good as a top receiver.”
I asked Beck how important QB play is in this rivalry game.
Beck said the fact the Utah-BYU game is this early in the season makes a huge difference over the tradition of playing this rivalry in November.
“Back when I played and Max played, you take an entire season’s experience and used it in that game. The BYU-Utah game was the culmination of everything you’d done and learned and it was like: now, we need your very best.” Beck pointed to the fact in 2006 neither BYU or Utah had a turnover in that game — it was the best.
Wilson and Hill don’t have the luxury of a full season of seasoning behind them.
Another factor of playing this early is a lack of game film and tendencies for Mendenhall and Kyle Whittingham to pick apart.
“Kyle always did a great job of having new wrinkles. So you could watch a ton of tape from the season of his team but it was like he saved certain things for the BYU game because there were always little wrinkles here and there. Also, his team would play off a lot of things they saw us do during the season. We put so much down on tape for them.
“My senior year, at one point in the game, they were playing off our hand signals. They had seen so much tape, they knew the majority of our hand signals and we had to change them in the middle of the game,” Beck said.
Beck wonders how big of an impact this will have come Saturday, that both Mendenhall and Whittingham have just two or three games to scout, and how much has been held back.
“I still maintain Hill is an accurate thrower. I’ve seen him do it. He has the skill set to do it. If Utah plays off the fact he’s had a few games of not being accurate, I think it will help BYU because they don’t really know what they’re playing against. If you have 11 games to look at, you know exactly what you have. And that goes for BYU looking at Utah and Wilson.”
Beck says the mystery of what Wilson and Hill still have in their respective bags could be the difference in the game.
They both run. One has proven he can throw. People claim the one that can't really can.
One certainty: The QB that comes closest to his team's version of Johnny Football will have the biggest impact on the outcome.The sad thing about these two guys is Saturday is their only shot at each other. A two-year shelving of the rivalry means this is the only one both will play.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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