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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
BYU coach Kalani Sitake talks to referees during the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against the Western Michigan Broncos at Albertsons Stadium in Boise on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.

There are 51 freshmen listed on the BYU football roster. More than the usual number of them started the latter half of the Cougar season, and several, including the game’s MVP, quarterback Zach Wilson, made huge plays in a bowl win last week.

These are they who learned what a bowl game feels like.

They saw what it looked like. Tasted it.

They heard what it sounded like in the locker room to send off a senior class with a win, and they celebrated hard alongside them, signing autographs and posing for photos with fans long after the trophy ceremony in Albertsons Stadium Friday night as crews cleaned up the stands and stashed equipment away.

This is the fiber of what experience delivers. If such experience is meaningful and successful and serious, whether in a Fortune 500 company, a construction crew or faculty at a school witnessing graduation, it is a passage of tacit knowledge that enhances and elevates.

“I learned more in these past six games than I have my entire life playing football,” Wilson told reporters after BYU defeated Western Michigan 49-18.

" Any season like this when you have so many young players and see the contributions they have all made, there is a lot of promise for the future. "
BYU offensive guard Tristen Hoge

On the bus ride back from the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, wide grins, laughter and verbal replays of the action dominated the atmosphere.

Quite a contrast from a year ago after the team beat Hawaii in Honolulu for win No. 4, with no bowl game for the seniors. Within 24 hours of that game, all but one offensive coach began the process of cleaning out their offices and hunting for new jobs.

Behind a record-setting performance by true freshman Wilson, a very, very young offense took off for the holidays with a fire in their bellies to get to work upon returning to campus.

“I can’t wait to block for him,” said offensive guard Tristen Hoge. “He’s going to get better and I promised him I’m going to get better, and I can’t wait to block for him in the future.”

Hoge called the 15 practices for the bowl as well as the lopsided win “a huge springboard” for the coming season.

“Any season like this when you have so many young players and see the contributions they have all made, there is a lot of promise for the future. I mean these guys are only going to get better, and I can’t wait to see what they bring next year.”

Freshman tackle Brady Christensen concurred.

“It is huge for us, especially for our confidence. It springboards us. Obviously, we wanted to finish this season strong, but it helps us with motivation and work.”

Christensen said Wilson’s performance inspired the offense.

“That dude is impressive. He’s a stud, and I’m excited to play with him for years to come and protect him. He’s the man.”

The 15 practices for the bowl proved valuable for all the freshmen and provided a step forward in preparation for next year’s opener against Utah in Provo. “It gave us a chance to work on different techniques and perfect them each day. Whether it be hand placement, a good punch move or footwork, it gave us a chance to get more technical as offensive linemen.”

Freshman tight end Dallin Holker said playing in his first bowl game was not only fun but gave all the young players valuable experience. “This is a great way to go forward for next season, it gets us started for sure.”

Freshman running back Tyler Allgeier said his experience was decent but there are things he needs to work on. “We're pretty young, and we have so many years to build as a team and settle in as a unit. We are going to do great things.”

Defensive end Parker Dawe said so much hard work went into preparation for the bowl that it brought great satisfaction to go out with a win.

“We’ve had a pretty decent season with many ups and downs along the way. We have a young offensive line and defensive line. I’m only a sophomore, and so it is an awesome experience to get reps and improve. Our goal is to be the most physical team in the country, and we are anxious to get going and show it," he said.

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“We have young corners and linebackers playing, and we’ve had to rely on them. When our offense is rolling as it did, it gets the defense rolling, and that’s when sacks come. This has been good, very good.”

Nobody can predict what all these warm fuzzies will be converted into until next fall when the Cougars take on a schedule that includes Tennessee, USC and Washington, in addition to regular foes Utah, Utah State and Boise State.

If you compare last Christmas Day with this one, the mood change is a transformation indeed.

For Kalani Sitake, that’s a very much improved starting point for 2019 than a year ago Christmas Day.