Dick Harmon: Riley Nelson breathes life into Cougar comeback

Backup's unconventional approach sparks Cougs

Published: Friday, Sept. 30 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT


Everyone says the game of football is a game of momentum.

Riley Nelson proved that is a scientific fact.

Nelson pulled off one of the biggest change-of-momentum performances ever witnessed in LaVell Edwards Stadium Friday night.

All he did was lead BYU's struggling offense to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and lift BYU to an emotional 27-24 comeback win over snake-bit Utah State. Nelson had career highs in TD passes and yards in just over 20 minutes of clock time.

Nelson took BYU on a 96-yard touchdown drive in the final 2:46 with the Cougars behind 24-21 to electrify Cougar TD-starved partisans perched in the stands. Nelson almost single-handedly put BYU's offense on his back and willed the Cougars to victory.

No kidding. It was movie stuff.

On The Drive, Nelson completed four of five passes for 66 yards and ran for 32 more.

On that winning drive, USU almost caught Nelson for a safety on one end of the field with just under three minutes to play in the game. Yet, Nelson celebrated the winning touchdown at the other end of the field with 11 seconds left on the clock.

How does that happen? Well, it did.

Nelson replaced sophomore Jake Heaps late in the third quarter and immediately led BYU to four scoring opportunities. Two of them backfired on a missed Justin Sorensen field goal and a fumble by JJ Di Luigi.

But despite those kinds of setbacks, all too common by the BYU offense this season, Nelson's touchdown passes of 24 and 13 yards to Cody Hoffman and Marcus Mathews put the hammer on the Aggies.

It was straight from Siegfried and Roy, a circus act.

Nelson's impact was clear and obvious.

Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman approached head coach Bronco Mendenhall in the third quarter and told him he'd like to insert Nelson to "add an element of the run" to the attack and hopefully get the offense some energy.

Where Heaps had been insecure and unsure, Riley oozed macho.

Where Heaps didn't appear hungry or play with a sense of urgency this season, Nelson was starved to make a play.

Where Heaps had shown a casual approach to third-down conversions, Riley made it a matter of life and death.

Where Heaps was quick to get rid of the ball, Riley examined the defense and attacked with his arm or legs, his strength as a quarterback.

Suddenly, BYU's offense, slumbering through the toughest part of the season, sensed a kill.

Receivers started diving for balls. Blockers started hitting harder. BYU runners found new spunk to their gait.

Momentum changed like a light switch. A replay even overturned a field call by officials on one of his passes.

Even his winning touchdown pass to Mathews was a pass tipped by an Aggie defender, intended for Di Luigi.

How does that happen?

Well, it does, when the night belongs to Nelson.

"He's gritty and toughy," said linebacker Brandon Ogletree. "He's had a tough road and stayed with it. Inspiring."

Nelson stunned the Aggie defense with what Mendenhall called "unconventional" plays. Nelson took off and ran out of the shotgun on pure QB draw plays. Even when the Aggies loaded the line of scrimmage with eight defenders, Nelson found a way to squeeze through for play after play.

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