BYU quarterback Taysom Hill sat in the postgame press interview room last Saturday and spoke clearly, intelligently and respectfully, delivering words in exactly the right tone about a heartbreaking BYU loss to Virginia.
He is a humble kid that you can’t help but admire.
His arms and hands were bruised and scraped from his biceps to his knuckles. Both of his legs were similarly marked as if he’d been in a cage fight battling for his life.
If he’d completed a third-and-6 pass to Jamaal Williams with a little less than three minutes to play, the subject matter he discussed would likely have been completely different.
If he’d completed half his passes instead of going 13 of 40, the Cougars would likely be 1-0. If his receivers hadn’t dropped about six passes that were catchable, ditto. Monsoon rains didn’t help, especially when Hill went 0 for 7 in the third quarter. A two-hour lightning delay nullified BYU's strategy to wear out Viginia’s defense with a quick-paced attack.
Those factors didn’t go Hill’s way and Virginia sacked him three times.
“No excuses,” Hill told reporters. “They made one more play than we did.”
Of all the things that did happen, it was clear Hill was hit, tackled, chased and rushed. His uniform was muddy. When he would hit the turf, he would slide on the slick Scott Stadium turf, sometimes for 5 or 6 yards as a rooster tail of water squirted in the air behind him. He looked like a linebacker or running back — dirt stains streaked across his jersey front and back and on top where his shoulder pads hid underneath the white road colors.
The challenge that lies ahead for BYU's football team is obvious: The Cougars must protect their quarterback, giving him time to make plays.
When the Cougars have a playmaking quarterback that completes around 60 percent of his passes, tosses touchdowns and completes drives, they can be pretty good. When they have an average QB, their record is average.
Quarterback play, in my opinion, is the single greatest factor in BYU’s football success during the past 45 years.
Hill is a uniquely gifted athlete. Will he survive to develop?
From 2005 to 2009, BYU enjoyed a rare stretch where its quarterbacks didn’t miss starts due to injuries. Aside from John Beck missing the Utah State game in 2006 with two sprained ankles, a contest in which Jason Beck replaced him, the Cougar QB starting run was pure through Max Hall.
And BYU won games.
Since that time, BYU QBs have been serially hurt, including Hill, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against USU in 2012, and Riley Nelson, who suffered a myriad injuries (shoulder, fractured back, punctured lungs, broken ribs) in 2011 and 2012. James Lark, who started at New Mexico State and in the Poinsettia Bowl against SDSU in 2012, ended his career with a concussion and his left hand swollen twice its normal size. Back in 2010, Jake Heaps played in the New Mexico Bowl, a win over UTEP, with broken ribs.
That, in a nutshell, is a primary reason development of BYU quarterbacks has gone off track since Hall walked off the field with a Las Vegas Bowl win over Oregon State in 2009.
The protection, safety and development of BYU’s quarterback position may just be the most important element of the program at this stage of Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure and return of offensive coordinator Robert Anae.
Looking at Hill after Saturday’s loss at Virginia, it's clear that mission is off to a rocky start.
With the University of Texas coming to town this Saturday, that challenge won’t get any easier. Hill probably felt like he was in a car accident Sunday and Monday. Same for his workhorse running back, Williams, who had a whopping 33 carries Saturday.
Some people were perplexed about why BYU’s game plan called for Williams to carry the ball so much — 30 percent of BYU’s 93 plays. Part of that may have been to protect Hill and allow him to ease into his third career start while also easing in a rebuilt offensive line to pass protect on the road.
When BYU led Virginia 16-12 with a little less than three minutes left, the strategy may have been ugly, but it had worked — especially considering the Cougars' 92-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive when Viginia’s defense appeared tired.
Then came the game-changing interception on that third-and-6 from BYU’s 34.
Hill will get better.
But only if he's given the time.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at [email protected].