Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
PROVO — Oh, the Life of Riley.
Oh, the return to the days of the old WAC, where BYU quarterbacks routinely feasted and threw the bones off the table to the dogs.
Riley Nelson, fresh off his heroics in BYU's dramatic comeback win over Utah State last week, got his first start of the season against San Jose State on Saturday night in LaVell Edwards Stadium, and he looked every part the Cougar quarterback of the days when BYU's passing attack beat WAC teams like a drum and defenses were as cross-eyed as a Rottweiler in a wiener stand.
Nelson picked up right where he left off a week ago against the Aggies.
For half a game on Saturday, we saw BYU and WAC football. BYU defeated San Jose State 29-16.
With his added threat of the run, he extended the pocket and kept San Jose State at bay and guessing with a horizontal passing game. Then he went vertical.
Nelson completed his first four passes, none of them less than 10 yards. He missed his fifth pass, then hit he completed his next four tosses for 21, 35, 1 and 40 yards. He caught McKay Jacobson for bombs as the senior made double moves unforeseen this season.
After BYU's fourth possession, Nelson was 8-for-9 for 145 yards, three touchdowns and a blistering pass efficiency rating of 334.3 at that stage of the game.
For you non-stat nerds out there, a pass efficiency rating of 150 is considered very good. A rating of 165 is outstanding. The NCAA leader this week is Robert Griffin III of Baylor with a gaudy 230. The leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy this season are Stanford's Andrew Luck (178.1) and Boise State's Kellen Moore (170.8).
Riley threw an interception on his 14th pass of the game. And he still had a pass efficiency rating of 229.9 at halftime because he was 10 of 14 for 174 yards, 3 touchdowns and that one interception.
Oh, if BYU had only opened the season against a WAC team, how much confidence would this beleaguered, score-impaired Cougar offense had gained in September? Credit Nelson. As a starting quarterback, despite his critics, he delivered something sorely needed by Brandon Doman and BYU's offensive players — and the defense: Confidence by efficiency.
Granted it was a San Jose State team that had the lowest Jeff Sagarin rating of BYU'S season, 110th (Utah State was 109th while Ole Miss was 77th, Texas 10th, Utah 34th, Central Florida 73rd).
And sure, the Spartans came to Provo really hurting offensively when star running back Brandon Rutley could not play due to an ankle sprain. Rutley's absence was huge because his 102 touches on offense were more than anybody else on the team and he is a great weapon.
But given that perspective, take nothing away from Nelson.
His presence on the field set the tone for the game and catapulted BYU to a commanding 23-6 lead with help from linebacker Kyle Van Noy's second-quarter interception that set up Nelson's 40-yard touchdown bomb to Jacobson.
BYU's offense had painfully struggled on third-down plays this season. Because of Nelson's efficiency and running ability, BYU never got into a third-and-long until late in the first half. He kept BYU on a trend of making first downs on first and second downs. On that first long one, a third-and-10, all Nelson did was hook up with Jacobson for a 22-yard gain.
Nelson was BYU's leading rusher at halftime with 42 yards. He had 62 in just over a quarter of play against the Aggies, the previous game when he came in for Jake Heaps.
Nelson's running ability has had an instant positive mark on BYU's offense. Where Doman has been begging for more production with the run game against very tough defenses, Nelson' run game gives BYU an extra blocker (10) to help push it on the grass.
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