Zach Wilson put on an absolute clinic on Tuesday night in the Boca Raton Bowl against the UCF Knights. NFL fans and scouts had to wipe drool off of their faces as Wilson tossed darts to and fro, finding receiver after receiver. He ended up with 425 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in BYU’s 49-23 dismantling of the Knights. His five total touchdowns was a BYU record for a quarterback in a bowl game.
That performance along with his two other bowls, including a “perfect game” against Western Michigan, when he went 18-for-18, got me thinking...how does Zach Wilson stack up against other great BYU quarterbacks in their bowl game careers?
After looking at their numbers and past great bowl game performances, I am here to tell you that there is no BYU quarterback in the program’s illustrious history of signal callers that had a better bowl career than Wilson.
Yes, Zach Wilson is the greatest bowl game quarterback in BYU history.
That is certainly a bold statement. At risk of being shouted at by BYU fans and alums of years and eras past, let me explain.
Of course, when you think of great quarterbacks of the past who have wandered the campus in Provo, names like Jim McMahon, Robbie Bosco, Steve Young, Ty Detmer, John Beck and Max Hall immediately come to mind. Yes, other quarterbacks have won bigger games than Wilson, such as McMahon’s Miracle Bowl comeback in 1980, Bosco’s national title in 1984, Detmer beating No. 1 Miami in 1990, Sarkisian winning the Cotton Bowl in 1996, along with plenty of conference championships along the way over the eras of BYU football.
However, when you look at the statistics and individual performances of these quarterbacks in their respective bowl games, no one has Wilson’s resume.
As mentioned, Zach Wilson pitched a “perfect game” in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to cap off the 2018 season. Along with his 18 completions without a blemish, he totaled 340 yards and four touchdowns along with his 100 percent completion percentage. It was one of the best bowl game performances by any quarterback in college football history.
Those skeptics to my statement will point to the middle of his three bowl games, Christmas Eve in Hawaii in 2019. Yes, BYU lost the Hawaii Bowl to the Rainbow Warriors after plenty of chances to win. I think it’s clear now that Wilson was not at all healthy or right in that game and yes, he made some head-scratching mistakes. However, he still compiled 274 yards through the air and 72 yards on the ground with two rushing touchdowns. Admirable stats for any quarterback. Also, need I point out that plenty of other great BYU signal callers had clunkers in bowl games? Bosco threw four interceptions in the 1985 Citrus Bowl. Detmer threw for a measly 120 yards while completing just 47.8 percent of his passes in the 1990 Holiday Bowl. McMahon struggled in the 1978 Holiday Bowl with just 133 yards and completed 50 percent of his passes.
Then came the Boca Raton Bowl to end the 2020 season. Wilson flashed his NFL arm talent and, if it were possible, boosted his draft stock. He became just the third quarterback in BYU history to win multiple bowl games, joining Jim McMahon and Max Hall. Tuesday night in Boca Raton, he became the only FBS quarterback in the last 25 years to throw for at least 400 yards, complete at least 75 percent of his passes, throw for three touchdowns, rush for two scores and oh yeah, catch a pass, in any game period, much less a bowl game (per @StatsbySTATS on Twitter). Truly, it was yet another all-time bowl game performance by Wilson, two years removed from his perfect day in Boise.
In total, Wilson racked up 1,016 passing yards, seven passing touchdowns, 107 rushing yards and four rushing scores, giving him 11 touchdowns total in three bowl games. In terms of efficiency, no one in BYU history has a higher passer rating than Wilson’s absurd 213.1 career rating in bowl games along with his 78.8 percent completion percentage, also a program record. The Boca Raton Bowl win also sealed a 1-loss season, which only has happened in Provo four other times since 1933.
Certainly, other great signal callers in BYU history have had great bowl games and even careers. McMahon had a monster day in that miraculous comeback against SMU in the 1980 Holiday Bowl with 446 passing yards, four touchdowns and a 164.6 rating and of course, that Hail Mary to win the game at the end. He played in three bowl games total, winning the 1981 Holiday Bowl as well, with 342 yards and three touchdowns. He totaled 921 passing yards with eight passing touchdowns and one rushing score in those three games.
Wilson edges McMahon’s passing yardage in three bowl games 1,016 to 921. He is superior in total touchdowns 11 to 8 and his passer rating far exceeds McMahon’s, 213.1 to 145.5. All while completing nearly 20 percent more of his passes.
Young played in two bowl games and split them, totaling 655 yards and four total touchdowns, along with a 133.2 rating.
Bosco, along with winning the national championship, played in two total bowl games but actually had less yardage and a lower rating than Steve Young in his two games.
Detmer certainly did his share of damage in bowl games, along with that shiny Heisman Trophy he possesses. In the 1989 Holiday Bowl, he torched Penn State to the tune of 576 yards with two passing touchdowns and two rushing scores. However, BYU lost the game as he also threw two interceptions. Detmer is the only quarterback that has more career passing yards in bowl games than Wilson’s 1,016, with his 1,175 yards. However, Wilson won two bowl games while Detmer went 1-2 in his three postseason contests. Wilson also outscored Detmer 11 touchdowns to 8 and had a better passer rating than Detmer’s (136.5) and completion percentage (62.4). Where Wilson might have lacked slightly in yardage compared to Detmer, he edged the Heisman winner in efficiency and scoring.
John Walsh played in two big bowl games for BYU in the 1993 Holiday Bowl and 1994 Copper Bowl, winning the latter. He performed well in both, totaling 843 passing yards and seven touchdowns in those two games. However, his passer rating and completion percentage pale in comparison to those of Wilson along with having almost 200 less yards and four less touchdowns than Wilson.
The last two quarterbacks that could give Wilson any sort of run for his money are John Beck and Max Hall. Beck split his two bowl games and threw four total interceptions in those games. Hall accumulated more yardage than Beck (751 to 727) with one more passing touchdown than Beck (six to five). Hall is also one of just four quarterbacks to have played in three bowl games for BYU, including Wilson. However, again Wilson beats both of them in yardage, total touchdowns and efficiency.
The numbers bear it out — Zach Wilson is the best bowl game quarterback BYU has ever had. He ranks first in completion percentage, passer rating, total touchdowns, rushing touchdowns, and second in passing yards and rushing yards in bowl games at BYU. Lastly, there is just no argument good enough to usurp Wilson after his perfection in 2018 and Tuesday night’s performance.
The only possible counterargument is that a lot of past BYU greats competed against the likes of Michigan, Texas A&M and Ohio State in bowl games while Wilson drew Western Michigan, Hawaii and UCF. That’s a fair point, but the stats remain what they are. Wilson utterly demolished inferior competition. Plus, Wilson is getting more NFL draft buzz than any BYU quarterback outside of Steve Young and Jim McMahon. He would’ve done just fine in those eras too. I could also argue the talent level of the type of teams BYU faces now is just as impressive as the talent found on name brand teams of old. College football has never been as talented or complicated as it is now.
We very likely have seen the last of Zach Wilson in BYU royal and white. It was a wonderful ride capped by an emphatic bowl win. When Wilson walks out the door in Provo for the last time, so goes the best bowl game quarterback Brigham Young University has ever had.