PROVO — It was one of those classic drives that BYU will remember for a long time.
When it began, the Cougar offense was backed up at its own 4-yard line, with 2:36 remaining in the game, and Utah State led, 24-20.
Backup quarterback Riley Nelson certainly caused problems for the Aggie defense with his running ability that helped keep his team's 96-yard, game-winning touchdown drive alive. But Nelson admitted that the Cougars enjoyed some good fortune on a couple of zany pass plays, resulting in a 27-24 BYU victory Friday night.
On second-and-10 from the Cougar 34-yard line, Nelson rolled right, then ran left as the wide receivers engaged in a scramble drill.
"My original route was a deep go route," said McKay Jacobson. "I could tell the play was kind of breaking down and I knew that Riley was scrambling. I was just trying to get to a place where I could make a play."
Nelson heaved a pass that fluttered in the night sky.
"The ball was thrown up," Jacobson said, "and I had to go get it." Jacobson caught the pass for a 40-yard gain to the USU 26-yard line.
Said Nelson, "I just kind of threw it to the middle of the field. It was really desperation and quite a bit of luck. In that situation, with that play call, running it doesn't do us much good because it's a long developing play. You kind of need a chunk (of yardage). You have to take that shot.
"I can't tell you how many times throwing with McKay in the summer and since I've been here, he always says, 'Just throw it up.' In our offense, it's very timing-based so there's not many opportunities to do that. But I'm glad it worked out."
Later, the Cougars had first-and-10 from the USU 13-yard line with 15 seconds remaining. Nelson took the snap and fired the ball into the end zone. The pass was intended for running back JJ Di Luigi, and both Di Luigi and Aggie defender Will Davis jumped up and deflected the ball in the air, and into the hands of tight end Marcus Mathews streaking across the back of the end zone with 11 seconds left.
"When JJ tipped it, the ball went right into the middle of the field and I just ran over and caught it," Mathews said. "JJ made it easy for me."
A flag was thrown on the play — a defensive holding call on Davis that was obviously declined.
What was going through Mathews' mind while the ball was in the air?
"To be 100 percent honest, I kind of hurt my ribs earlier and they were a little sore," Mathews said. "So I caught it and I tried to run away from everybody so (his teammates) wouldn't tackle me."
It marked the first touchdown scored by a Cougar tight end since 2009.
"Luck, I think, played a part in there," Nelson said of BYU's final offensive play. "But even still, they called a flag and we would have had another opportunity to punch it in there … I was happy for Marcus that he caught the ball. I was happy for our offense that we were able to go the distance of the field and win the game."
While the Cougars credited Nelson for sparking them after he replaced starter Jake Heaps in the third quarter, Nelson didn't see it that way.
"I don't think I was necessarily the catalyst they rallied around. I think our guys realized what needed to be done," he said. "We made the decision that we were going to put ourselves in a position to win the game. Luck played a big part in the ball bouncing our way."
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Following the game, as BYU fans stormed the field to celebrate the win, USU running back Robert Turbin made his way through the crowd to congratulate Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall.
"Those kinds of things in college football say a lot about a way a team is coached and what values are being instilled," Mendenhall said. "I was very impressed by that, especially in the way the game finished."
Mendenhall added that he has "a lot of respect" for USU coach Gary Andersen and his team.
"They're one or two plays or one or two players away from beating Auburn, Colorado State and BYU," he said. "They're being coached at a really high level."
"I wish them the best," said Nelson, who played for the Aggies as a freshman before transferring to BYU. "I hope they compete for the WAC championship. I think they have the talent to. I believe in Coach Andersen and the players that they have. (Quarterback) Chuckie Keeton's an incredible athlete for a little freshman out there, running around making plays. Robert Turbin is an elite college football player."
ANOTHER 'DOGFIGHT': So far this season, BYU has staged second-half comebacks in all three of its victories.45 comments on this story
The Cougars rallied from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter in the season-opener at Ole Miss. Last week, BYU was down 17-10 in the third quarter before winning, 24-17.
On Friday, the Cougars overcame a 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter against USU.
"I get asked about the games a lot and every time I say, 'It's a dogfight,'" Nelson said. "That's just who we are and the way our schedule is set up, every game is going to be decided by a touchdown or less. We're ready for it for the rest of the season and I hope Cougar fans are too, because this is how it's going to be. Obviously, in games like that that are close, emotions run high. The highs are really high and the lows are really low. So it's going to be a fun season."