Playing just six days after tying an FBS record by running a physically taxing 115 offensive plays in a win at Houston, doesn't sound like a prescription for success for Brigham Young. Throw in a daunting foe in Boise State and there is additional cause for concern.
But considering its four-game winning streak and the startling progression of sophomore quarterback Taysom Hill, who seems to grow each week, BYU has reason to want to get on the field as soon as possible. The opportunity comes Friday night when the Cougars (5-2) play host to the Broncos (5-2).
Boise State figured to be one of the more challenging opponents on the schedule. But the Broncos will be without starting quarterback Joe Southwick, who broke his ankle on the first snap of Boise State's 34-17 victory over Nevada. The senior ranks 30th in the nation in passing efficiency (149.9).
Instead, the Cougars will face Grant Hedrick, a junior with a rare combination of undesirable traits: He is old and inexperienced. But Hedrick was excellent in relief last week in a 34-17 win over Nevada, completing 18 of 21 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown and rushing eight times for 115 yards and a pair of scores. Despite Saturday's 47-46 win at Houston, the defense of BYU, led by LB Kyle Van Noy, promises to present more problems.
Southwick's injury is another example of the bad luck that has plagued quarterbacks of BYU opponents. Utah State's longshot Heisman candidate Chuckie Keeton went down with an ACL tear in the second quarter of BYU's 31-14 win on Oct. 4. Against Houston, BYU faced a pair of freshman quarterbacks instead of David Piland, whose career was cut short early this season by concussions after throwing 41 career touchdown passes.
Meanwhile, Hill has remained upright this season despite a monstrous workload. Saturday at Houston he passed 44 times, completing 29 for 417 yards and four touchdowns and carried 34 times, which included the eight sacks. Hill gained 195 yards on those runs, minus the 67 he lost on the sacks. At a school with an illustrious quarterback history, Hill became the first to throw for 400 yards and run for 100 in a game.
The Hill who willed BYU to victory on Saturday bore little resemblance to the player who had his first significant action last year in a 7-6 loss at Boise State. Looking like a skittish colt, Hill struggled in the passing game but rushed 12 times for 72 yards, rallying BYU for a late touchdown, and providing enough of a spark to earn the starting job before suffering a season-ending torn ACL two weeks later.
Fast forward a year and Hill -- despite riding a September roller coaster of success and failure -- has found a way become one of the most impactful players in the sport, and a worthy heir to the BYU tradition of Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer, Robbie Bosco, and the player to whom he is most compared, Steve Young.
Friday on ESPN is Hill's night in the national spotlight, a chance to announce his candidacy for the 2014 Heisman Trophy.
THIS WEEK'S GAME: vs. Boise State, Friday, 8 ET. The Broncos (5-2) opened the year ranked No. 19, but quickly tumbled out of the top 25 with a 38-6 opening-game loss at Washington. Don't expect this game to mirror last year's 7-6 Boise State victory, in which the Cougars committed five turnovers and the teams combined for 16 penalties.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--RB Jamaal Williams. The sophomore has had a season of hard knocks, sustaining a concussion in a loss to Utah. Last week at Houston, he was knocked from the game in the third quarter with a hip pointer. Williams (124 carries, 626 yards) expects to return Friday night, testing a Boise defense which has allowed 152 rushing yards per game. Williams was recruited by Boise and had a brother in the program, but chose BYU in part because the Cougars recruited him to play running back. Boise liked Williams as a both a RB and DB.
--LB Uani Unga. Boise State still has one of the best and most balanced offenses in the FBS, ranking No. 18 with 494 yards per game, with 270 through the air and 224 on the ground. BYU senior Unga, who leads the Cougars with 69 tackles, will pay close attention to Boise's top back, sophomore Jay Ajayi (135 carries, 766 yards, 12 touchdowns) who had a career-high 222 yards rushing in last week's 34-17 win over Nevada.
--P Scott Arellano. Boise State ranks second in the nation in punt return average (24.5 yards). The primary return threat is also the Broncos' top receiver, sophomore Shane Williams-Rhodes. It will be up to the Cougars' Arellano to try to play keep-away, kicking high or toward the sideline to limit Boise's punt return opportunities.