BYU’s QB change throws intrigue into matchup with West Virginia

BYU quarterback Jake Retzlaff passes the ball during BYU’s practice in Provo on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023.
BYU quarterback Jake Retzlaff passes the ball during BYU’s practice in Provo on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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Utah should defeat Arizona State at home, but BYU’s long trip to West Virginia is a big challenge, one complicated by a Cougar change in quarterbacks from Kedon Slovis to Jake Retzlaff on Saturday.

The switch to Retzlaff became one of necessity after the senior transfer Slovis got banged up against Texas Tech and Texas. It is a move to get a healthy, but inexperienced, backup on the field for offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick

This move has been rumored since before the Texas game. Reports made the rounds that if Slovis struggled with his injury at Texas, Retzlaff would be given a chance.

This makes sense on several fronts.

A healthy, more mobile Retzlaff would give Roderick some options in running RPO plays, making defenses account for his ability to leave the pocket as an option runner. Also, as plays break down, Roderick has had the luxury of seeing his previous two quarterbacks, Jaren Hall and Zach Wilson, gain needed first-down yardage by leaving the pocket and chasing the sticks.

Also, Roderick used the QB draw play extensively with Hall and Wilson, especially in the red zone, to get designated play yardage. Retzlaff rushed for more than 500 yards in his single junior college season at Riverside City College in California.

Another benefit for Roderick, as Slovis heals, is to get Retzlaff playing time needed for next season. Retzlaff can keep his year of eligibility now because the NCAA allows players to keep redshirt years intact if they play in only four games — plus a bowl game.

Switching QBs isn’t always rosy, however. Timing, chemistry, confidence and experience at reading defenses and seeing receivers in live action is completely different than taking a few reps during practices with the second unit. Retzlaff, who hasn’t played a down of Division I football, will need to grow up fast when West Virginia’s defense zeros in to put pressure on him and test his mettle.

Obviously Roderick wanted this QB change kept under wraps to give the Mountaineers little time to prepare. The news of the change broke Friday afternoon through several Utah media outlets, beginning with BYU’s own Daily Universe student newspaper via X.

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Roderick told BYUtv on “Coordinators Corner” there could be players on redshirt play this weekend because of the four-game allowance. He didn’t say Retzlaff would be one of them, but he didn’t say he wouldn’t. He was cagey on the subject on purpose.

Retzlaff has a strong arm and quick release. He is a solid athlete and was considered the No. 1 junior college quarterback when signed by the Cougars a year ago. In limited exposure in practices, Retzlaff has looked impressive and capable.

It will be interesting to see how Roderick and pass game coordinator Fesi Sitake decide to use him.

Their instincts are to be aggressive and throw the ball downfield. But they could go the route of TCU, which broke in a new quarterback against the Cougars and obliterated BYU’s defense with short passes and quick releases, essentially neutralizing BYU’s pressure on freshman Josh Hoover.

If BYU pulls off a Hoover maneuver, it might work. But BYU’s receivers have struggled against man pressure in the Big 12. Roderick may give WV a big dose of running backs Aidan Robbins and LJ Martin to take pressure off Retzlaff, but it will have to be effective. The trip wire for the Cougars all season has been to get in third-and-long situations, mostly on failed attempts with the run.

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BYU did show progress in the run game against a tough Texas front in a loss, gaining nearly 100 yards on the ground against the Longhorns.

West Virginia’s defense is middle of the pack in the NCAA, certainly less resistant than Texas a week ago. WV ranks 69th in total defense, allowing 378 yards a game. BYU is gaining about 300 yards a game. The Mountaineers are 73rd in scoring defense, allowing 26.5 yards per game, and is 72nd in both rush and red-zone defense.

The Mountaineers excel is hogging the football on offense, like Air Force does. The Mountaineers rank No. 4 nationally in time of possession. BYU’s offense with Retzlaff could really help Jay Hill’s defense if it keeps the ball on possessions with Retzlaff.

Retzlaff’s mobility might give BYU’s offense what it needs in moving the chains, both by threat and productivity. But will it be enough to beat WV on its home field Saturday, where the Cougars are 10-point underdogs?

Here are the key stats BYU must achieve to beat WV: Pass for 275 yards, rush for 130, gain a three-turnover advantage, convert 60% on third downs, and hold WV to 375 yards of offense. The Mountaineers’ weakness on defense includes injuries at linebacker and in the secondary. If Retzlaff can take advantage and BYU can pound the ball on the ground, the Cougars will have a chance in a tough venue.

Utah’s challenge with Arizona State remains with its offense. The Utes need to score at least 17 points to win. The Utes defense should be able to control points by the Sun Devils in Rice-Eccles Stadium.


This week’s picks

  • Kansas State 28, Texas 27.

  • Oklahoma 31, Oklahoma State 24.

  • Baylor 34, Houston 31.

  • Cincinnati 37, UCF 28.

  • Iowa State 31, Kansas 28.

  • Utah 21, Arizona State 17.

  • Oregon 38, California 10.

  • Washington 28, USC 27.

  • Washington State 38, Stanford 28.

  • Arizona 24, UCLA 21.

  • Oregon State 27, Colorado 24.

  • West Virginia 28, BYU 21.

Last week: 11-1; 83-25 overall (.768).

BYU quarterback Jake Retzlaff laughs with a trainer during annual Blue vs. White scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, March 31, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News
BYU quarterback Jake Retzlaff laughs with a trainer during annual Blue vs. White scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, March 31, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News