PROVO — For BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, things might be a little surreal Saturday night.
When the 19-year-old true freshman takes the field at red-drenched Rice-Eccles Stadium to face No. 18 Utah, he’ll be wearing blue, trying to beat the team he cheered for as a kid.
No doubt, Wilson understands the rivalry. Now he'll get to play in it — and he's looking forward to it.
“It’s a great opportunity overall. It’s all the emotions and everything flying around,” said the 6-foot-3, 205-pounder out of Corner Canyon High. “The opportunity to play against a team that you grew up loving, it’s going to be so much fun. Playing for BYU, I’m all BYU. I kind of separate that from my childhood dreams of the team I wanted to win. It’s almost two different outlooks now.”
The Cougars have lost seven consecutive games against the Utes. BYU is relying on Wilson to help end that ignominious streak.
For years, Wilson attended Utah games regularly as a fan with his family, which had season tickets. But one of the BYU-Utah games he didn’t attend stands out as one of those he remembers most — when the Cougars knocked off the Utes in Salt Lake City in 2006 as quarterback John Beck threw a dramatic, game-winning touchdown pass on the final play of the game.
It was the last time BYU beat Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Wilson was 7 years old.
“I didn’t get to go to the game but I watched it on TV. I remember when John Beck had that throwback pass to beat Utah — that was pretty cool,” he recalled. “At the time I didn’t think it was very cool.”
As a youngster, Wilson attended Utah football camps and he became acquainted with Ute coaches like Kalani Sitake and Aaron Roderick, who are now coaching at BYU. Sitake and Roderick built a strong relationship with Wilson and that played a role in Wilson's decision to sign with the Cougars last December.
Wilson's familiarity with the atmosphere at Rice-Eccles Stadium might help him Saturday.
“The environment’s awesome there. I’ve always loved going to their home games,” he said. “By going to so many of them, I think it will feel pretty comfortable.”
During BYU’s bye week in October, Wilson attended the Utah-USC game with his family. “My uncle has season tickets, the ones we used to have,” Wilson said.
How was he received by the fans?
“I had a few Utah fans call me out for wearing a BYU shirt," Wilson said, "but nothing too crazy."
Wilson took over as the Cougars’ starting QB in mid-October, replacing Tanner Mangum. With five starts under his belt, he’s completed 82 of 135 passes for 1,057 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. And he’s rushed 51 times for 125 yards and two TDs.
Sitake said Wilson is prepared for the big stage that is the BYU-Utah game.
“He’s ready to play football. I have a lot of confidence in him. Is he perfect? Has he played perfectly? No. That’s part of football that you want them to get to be perfect,” he said. “He’s made some mistakes but one thing I can tell you, he’s learned from them. He has the mindset to rally back from any adversity that he’s seen. He prepares better than anybody that I’ve been around that can play that position. That’s a huge compliment to (BYU quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick) and how he prepares his players. I’ve been really happy with (Wilson) and his performance. More than anything, I love the way he competes and he’s doing a great job leading this team, especially as a true freshman.”
“I’m excited for Zach. He’s gotten better each week. He’s made mistakes but that’s how it is in the game of football. But he’s learned from them,” said wide receiver Micah Simon. “He’ll continue to prepare and continue to put himself in a position to make plays. I’m confident in him to lead us."
Simon said Wilson likes to keep things loose.
"I always joke with him to use a little bass in his voice in the huddle. He always jokes back with me and leads us," Simon said. "It’s good to see him stay relaxed during the course of the game through the ups and downs. There will be ups and downs this week as well. It’s great to see how he’s responded these past few weeks.”
Offensive lineman Austin Hoyt likes the way Wilson leads the offense.
“He brings energy and confidence as well. He’s always out there smiling, excited to be there. He likes to give the offensive linemen winks whenever he calls a play,” Hoyt said. “Little things like that, him just working to connect with us and the energy he brings to practice, it’s great to play with him.”
How does Hoyt think Wilson will handle the hostile environment at Utah?
“I think he’ll do well. Watching him play in the Boise State game, for the most part, he was able to handle a lot of the noise and the pressure from that game really well,” he said. “I think it will be similar at Utah. He’ll do a good job handling the environment and everything that goes along with that.”
Wilson said the key to handling this game is “preparation. I’m confident in myself that I’ll be prepared and ready to go for anything they throw at you. There’s no reason to be nervous. You always get those pre-game butterflies, but once the game gets going, you get a feel for it. There’s no reason to be nervous if you’re prepared.”
Of course, Wilson is well aware of, and respects, Utah’s defense, which one of the best in the country.
“They’re an aggressive team. They’re not afraid of putting guys on an island and manning up because they have great personnel,” he said. “They don’t need a lot of help over the top. They like to bring pressure and cause you to make bad decisions based on guys in your face. They have a great defense. It’s something we’re preparing for.”
As he’s watched BYU-Utah games as a fan in recent years, he’s noticed the Cougars have had a lot of turnovers and have made a lot of mistakes that contributed to BYU's prolonged losing streak against Utah.43 comments on this story
"As a Utah fan, I used to love that kind of thing," he said.
Now, the ball will be in Wilson’s hands.
“As a quarterback, you never think about turnovers. You just go out there and play and use your instincts,” he said. “You make decisions based on what you’ve studied and what you see. Sometimes mistakes happen but you’ve got to trust your ability to make plays.”
Growing up, he imagined himself making plays for Utah. But on Saturday, Wilson will be trying to make them for BYU instead.