Life without Taysom Hill, at least for the rest of this season, officially got underway for the BYU Cougars on Thursday night in Orlando. It didn’t start well for Hill’s replacement, a former walk-on making his first career start, and ended no better for all involved in overtime.
Senior Christian Stewart was granted a scholarship over the summer. On Thursday he took his lumps before showing some promise in the second half despite eventually falling short against UCF 31-24.
Stewart had trouble moving the chains throughout much of the first half, going 10 of 15 passing for 58 yards. He was intercepted in the end zone by Jacoby Glenn early in the second quarter and appeared on pace to duplicate his dismal performance while in relief a week ago when he went 10 of 29 with three interceptions and no touchdowns.
But he came to life in the second half, putting the Cougars (4-2) in front 24-10 with nine minutes left in the third quarter and showing the potential he possesses for the long haul as BYU’s quarterback for the remainder of the season.
But the good times were short-lived.
“We as a staff found more of a rhythm and more of a range at what he feels comfortable doing,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said of Stewart’s adjustment at halftime. “His resiliency was really positive and the things that we gave him the chance to do, we were more effective [doing those] in the second half.”
The absence of Hill meant the playbook was simplified for Stewart during a short week of preparation. It also led to the absence of many of the pro scouts from the press box who had previously planned to be in attendance for an up-close look at the dual-threat QB.
Hill had started the previous 18 games in a row for the Cougars before suffering a serious leg injury a week ago, ending his season for the second time in three years. It’s a serious loss for BYU considering the type of production he provided as both a passer and rusher, not to mention being a first-round talent among the current crop of college football quarterbacks.
After tiptoeing through the first half, Stewart opened the third quarter by duplicating the kind of things Hill had previously excelled at: running and throwing the football to keep defenses off balance.
“I was really proud of Christian. When we started the game I really didn’t want to give him a lot,” BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “We worked hard at simplifying our game plan for that reason. He was still a little jittery to start, but boy, I was really proud of the way he answered the situation and kept focused. Usually when you hit a certain lull in a game you can see a kid who’s broken his focus, but Christian is pleasant to be around in that regards. [He had] tremendous focus, especially when we were down.”
Stewart began the second half by leading a scoring drive that tied the game at 10-10 against a UCF (3-2) defense that hadn’t allowed a touchdown in nine-straight quarters. The 4-yard toss to Colby Pearson was perfectly placed over the sophomore’s shoulder and out of the reach of a defender.
Stewart later took advantage of a short field on back-to-back possessions for two touchdown tosses to senior tight end Devin Mahina. The first was set up when a BYU punt bounced off the foot of a UCF player. The second came just one play after Skye PoVey picked off a Justin Holman pass.
And just like that the Cougars went from being down 10-3 at halftime to holding a 14-point lead in the third, only to see UCF storm back and win the game in overtime when Stewart’s final pass dropped incomplete in the end zone.
“That’s what you live for. That’s why you play quarterback, you want the pressure on your shoulders,” Stewart said. “I was excited and I had all the confidence in the world in my team, and I was heartbroken that we were unable to put it in the end zone.”
He felt his intended receiver, Jordan Leslie, was held at the goal line on the game’s final play, but threw it where he figured the senior could reach it before taking a hit from a defender.
The effort proved too little too late, no matter how the possession would’ve played out. UCF clearly owned momentum while playing overtime with the student section at its back.
Stewart pointed to the complacency that started to set in as the root of his team’s trouble after building their lead, and said that not executing when it came to making gains on first down and their accumulation of penalties hurt them most.
The ending played out much in the same fashion the game began for the Cougars over much of the opening two quarters of the first half.
“It’s pretty obvious that it took a while to get going, but I really felt like we got into a good rhythm and I found some of my strengths [like] getting rid of the ball quick, not having to go through too many reads, and then I felt like I started to get into rhythm and was actually able to play like myself and make plays,” Stewart said.
Stewart finished the night 22 of 36 for 153 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He also rushed for a career-high 52 yards on 13 carries, in a game that may be a sign of things to come for the Cougars as their new senior QB gains more experience.
But BYU is left to hold out hope that the end result for Stewart’s efforts will soon begin to match those of the guy he’s replaced.