Once the figurehead for everything that was wrong with Utah's offense, Hays feels like he has weathered one of the worst times of his career.
"It was rough after the Cal game, definitely," he said. "But you know, winning cures everything."
Hays will never be included among the Pac-12's elite quarterbacks, but the way he has improved in recent weeks gives the Utes a fighting chance against the Bruins.
Hays, who threw three interceptions, lost a fumble and was sacked five times in the Utes' 34-10 loss to Cal, is finding the range he needs on his long throws. He hasn't had a turnover in the past two games and is doing a much better job of managing the offense, all of which is making him a much better quarterback than he was a few weeks ago when he looked like a quarterback out of his league in the loss to the Bears.
"You can see how he is progressing," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He is more confident, he is making better decisions and he's not forcing the ball into coverage. We'd hoped that would happen in the natural progression and maturation of a quarterback and that is what is happening."
Hays has spent more time in the film room, which has helped, he said, but the biggest aid in his improvement simply has been more time on the field.
"I'm making smart plays, knowing where the hot spots are and starting to feel more comfortable with the offense, really," he said. "The game is definitely starting to slow down."
Hays' improvement hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates. A well-liked guy when he joined the Utes in the summer from Butte College, Hays had the immediate support of his teammates when he took over for the injured Jordan Wynn against Washington on Oct. 1. But now he has their confidence, too.
"He has been incredible," running back John White said. "He is playing more confident and he spends hours and hours in the film room and it's paying off now. That is a big step, being the guy that is behind Jordan and just getting the mental reps, but he is stepping up now."
Where in the past Hays would rush plays or make bad decisions, leading to easy picks for defenses, he has shown more of a willingness to remain in the flow of the game and make better decisions.
"You can tell things are slowing down for him," receiver DeVonte Christopher said. "He gets better and better in my opinion. You can definitely see in Game 6 he is different than Game 1 or Game 2. The calls in the huddle, the checks on plays, everything is getting better each week."
The Utes cut back on the playbook to help Hays, a change that has also helped his decision-making.
"I don't have to check protection so much and think as much," he said. "I get to react a little more so it's working good right now."
The Utes hope it continues to work for just a few more games.
Hays as a starter
Hays' game-by-game performances:
Opponent Comp/Att Yards TD Int
vs. Arizona State 18/30 199 1 3
vs. Pittsburgh 14/23 127 0 0
vs. California 11/22 148 0 3
vs. Oregon St. 6/14 62 0 0
vs. Arizona 12/21 199 2 0
UCLA at Utah
P Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
TV • KJZZ