PROVO — True freshman Zach Wilson wasted little time making an impact as BYU’s new starting quarterback.
Coach Kalani Sitake was looking for a spark for his team, and he found it in Wilson.
In his first career start, Wilson completed 16 of 24 passes for 194 yards, throwing for three touchdowns and running for another, to lead the Cougars to a 49-23 homecoming victory over Hawaii Saturday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium in front of a crowd of 52,354.
"I was grateful for the opportunity and I tried to make the most of it," Wilson said of his first start.
It was the most points BYU has scored this season. The Cougars’ previous best was 30 points against McNeese State, and it marked the most points they’ve scored in a game since putting up 51 against UMass in 2016.
"Forty-nine points," wide receiver Dylan Collie said of Wilson's performance. "That's pretty good for a (19)-year-old kid. Zach did it and he'll continue to do it."
Of course Wilson had plenty of help from the rest of the offense and an aggressive defense that limited the high-scoring Rainbow Warriors.
All season long, BYU had struggled to get out of the gate, scoring a total of seven points in the first quarter. The Cougars fell behind 21-0 early on in lopsided losses to Washington and Utah State.
But this week, Sitake handed the keys of the offense to Wilson and in return, Wilson helped produce the opposite effect — an uncharacteristic fast start.
"For what we recruited him to do," Sitake said, "he did it."
Wilson led the Cougars to touchdown drives on their first two series, including an 87-yarder on their first possession, and they led 21-0 midway through the second quarter.
On the night BYU, which ran for a mere 39 yards against USU last week, rushed for 280 against the Rainbow Warriors.
Matt Hadley ran nine times for 91 yards and a touchdown, Lopini Katoa rushed 16 times for 83 yards and a TD, and Riley Burt gained 59 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
"The coaches really challenged us to believe in ourselves this week," Hadley said.
The Cougar defense, meanwhile, recorded four sacks and forced two turnovers. Going into Saturday’s game, the Cougars had only six sacks this season.
BYU held Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald, who entered the night No. 2 in the nation in passing and averaging 350 yards per game, to 22 of 38 passing for 248 yards with two TDs and one interception. As a team, Hawaii was averaging 38.4 points per game.
"When the offense is rolling like that, it take some pressure off of the defense and we can play more free," said linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi.
BYU safety Dayan Ghanwoloku, playing in his first game in almost a month due to injury, recovered a muffed punt midway through the third quarter that set up a three-yard TD run by Burt and put the Cougars up 35-10.
BYU extended its lead to 42-17 after a 24-yard TD pass from Wilson to wide receiver Aleva Hifo early in the fourth quarter.
The Cougars’ final score came on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to wide receiver Gunner Romney with 3:45 remaining.
With the win, BYU (4-3) prevented Hawaii (6-2) from clinching bowl-eligibility this week. The Rainbow Warriors dropped to 0-10 all-time against the Cougars in Provo.
BYU’s defense forced a punt on Hawaii’s opening drive, then Cougar offense, led by Wilson, drove 87 yards in 12 plays on its first possession, capped by a 12-yard touchdown run by Katoa. It marked the first time this season BYU has scored on its first drive.
After another forced punt by the defense, the Cougars found the end zone again that ended with Wilson scampering 23 yards for his first career rushing TD to make it 14-0 with 1:02 left in the first quarter.
BYU had been outscored 38-7 by opponents this season in the first quarter going into the game.78 comments on this story
Wilson was intercepted for the first time in his career early in the second quarter, but when he got the ball back a few minutes later, he engineered another solid touchdown drive, culminated by a 21-yard run by Hadley.
"Not happy about that pick he threw," Sitake said.
Leading 21-3, Cougar safety Austin Lee intercepted McDonald and returned it 36 yards to the Hawaii 13-yard line. One play later, Wilson threw a touchdown strike to Dallin Holker and BYU led 28-3 to end the first half.
The Cougars have a bye next week and won’t play again until Oct. 27 at home against Northern Illinois.