University of Washington

Huskies preparing to contend with the big-play ability of BYU quarterback Zach Wilson

Brigham Young quarterback Zach Wilson (1) throws to a receiver before an NCAA college football game against Tennessee Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Brigham Young quarterback Zach Wilson (1) throws to a receiver before an NCAA college football game against Tennessee Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne) AP

Zach Wilson was in trouble.

With just more than six minutes left in Saturday’s game against USC, BYU was trailing 24-20 and the Cougars quarterback was attempting to lead a comeback. But on first-and-10 near midfield, the Trojans brought heavy pressure.

Wilson looked like he had nowhere to go, but he wasn’t daunted. Instead, he backpedaled to avoid two charging pass rushers, slipped through a hole between them and hit wide receiver Gunner Romney with a 35-yard pass on the run.

Two plays later, Wilson took the snap and almost immediately charged through USC’s defense. As he neared the end zone, he dove through a gap in two Trojan defenders for a 16-yard touchdown that put the Cougars up 27-24 with 5:41 remaining. The Trojans tied the game in regulation before BYU won with a field goal and a stop in overtime.

Based on his analysis, it’s safe to say Washington defense back Myles Bryant has seen the tape.

“I mean, if I was playing Madden, I feel like (Wilson’s) the prototypical Madden-type of quarterback, where he can run around and throw it,” Bryant said after practice Tuesday.

Wilson, a sophomore, took over as BYU’s starter midway through last season. That was after the Huskies cruised to a 35-7 victory at Husky Stadium. Tanner Mangum started that game, completing 18-of-21 passes for 160 yards. He was sacked twice.

Through three games this season, Wilson has completed 60-of-95 passes for 720 yards and two touchdowns. He’s also rushed for an additional 47 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. In nine appearances in 2018, Wilson completed 120-of-182 passes for 1,578 yards and three touchdowns. He had 75 carries for 221 yards and two touchdowns.

But what Wilson does best is make something out of nothing. He’s an effective scrambler, and he’s proven more than capable of making throws on the run. Simply containing him, Bryant said, will be the Huskies’ biggest challenge.

“Just understanding that he could hurt teams with his arm and his legs,” Bryant said. “It’s kind of like a deceptive speed that he has. He doesn’t look like he’s running fast but he’s one of those guys when you get out there and he’s moving around, he’s pretty athletic.”

The Cougars are averaging 356.3 yards per game and 23.6 points per game. But last year, BYU averaged 37.2 rushing attempts and 153.2 rushing yards per game. This season, it is averaging 110 yards on 30.7 attempts. Meanwhile, the Cougars are attempting 3.6 more passes per game and averaging 24.5 more passing yards.

“They really tweaked their system,” UW coach Chris Petersen said Monday. “They were really run-oriented. They still want to run the ball, but it is different. There is certainly some carry-over, but it is different. I think the quarterback makes them better. He’s a really good player. He’s super athletic. He gets the ball out quick. He’s got some moxie to him. I think that on offense, they are significantly different there.”

After dropping the season opener to Utah, BYU has picked up back-to-back wins over Tennessee and USC. The Cougars will provide a challenge for a young UW defense that’s had its ups-and-downs through the first three games of the season.

The downs, for reasons inside linebacker Brandon Wellington can’t explain, seem to be limited to the third quarter. Remove that frame from the 20-19 loss to Cal and the Huskies would have allowed no touchdowns, six points and 155 total yards. Take it out of the 52-20 victory over Hawaii and UW would have allowed just a single touchdown and 249 yards.

Over the past two games, the Huskies have given up 40 total points. Without the third quarter, they have allowed 13.

“Like the Cal game, if you look in the third quarter, we did a poor job tackling that whole drive,” Wellington said. “They had a long drive. We had them pinned deep but they marched down the field on us. They scored. They had a lot of explosives that drive, especially.

“Third quarter against Hawaii, it’s the same thing. Not so much from a tackling standpoint, but they were hitting us in our weak points in our defense and our drops.”

And that’s exactly what the UW will be looking to avoid in its attempts to limit the Cougars’ Wilson-led offense.

“(Wilson’s) getting out and running around,” Wellington said. “He’s extending plays. As long as we can confine him to the pocket, I think we should do well.”

Lauren Kirschman is the UW Huskies beat writer for The News Tribune. She previously covered the Pittsburgh Steelers for PennLive.com. A Pennsylvania native and a University of Pittsburgh graduate, she also covered college athletics for the Beaver County Times from 2012-2016.
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