Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
PROVO — Halfway through the regular season, BYU owns a 4-2 record, which isn't too much of a surprise.
The biggest surprise? The new offensive play-makers, who helped lead the Cougars to a 29-16 victory over San Jose State on Saturday night.
Who would have guessed in August — or even two weeks ago — that Riley Nelson would be the starter at quarterback, and that Michael Alisa would be the go-to running back?
Jake Heaps, who entered the season as the undisputed starter at QB, and the Cougar run game, have fallen short of expectations. Changes have been made, and BYU's offense enters the second half of its schedule sporting a new look.
When fall camp concluded at the end of August, coach Bronco Mendenhall said he thought his team was ahead of schedule. He admitted Saturday that he had overestimated its development.
"In looking at our talent and looking at the way fall camp went, I thought we were farther ahead than what we were," Mendenhall said. "Still, how we played early in the season, and that we are 4-2 at this point, short of being 6-0 or 5-1, I thought that we would just be executing on both sides at a higher level. I don't know how much of an overestimation it was, but there was probably some over overestimation of where we might have been as a team coming out of camp."
When asked to assess his team at the midway point of the season, Mendenhall said, "Still growing, still maturing and a work of progress would be the exact way I would put it. It's a work in progress. We have not reached our potential yet. And there's so much more that our team I believe is capable of in terms of playing great football from the first quarter to the fourth quarter. That's exactly what I just told (the team) in the locker room. I'm anxious for the next test, because I know they can play even better. They know they can play better. That's kind of driving our weekly practice, not the opponent, we just know there's more in there we can get."
Making his first start in more than one year, Nelson completed 14-of-24 passes for 219 yards, with three touchdowns, two interceptions and one fumble against the Spartans. He also rushed nine times for 65 yards.
"Personally, pretty average. About a C," is how Nelson graded his performance. "Three turnovers in the red zone was bad news."
Heaps, meanwhile, did not play on Saturday.
Mendenhall said Nelson "most likely" will retain the starting job when the Cougars (4-2) visit Oregon State (1-4) on Saturday (2 p.m. MT, KBYU/Fox College Sports Pacific).
"I would rather just watch the film, talk to the offensive coaches, and kind of keep it working that way," the coach said. "But it's hard when you win two football games, and he had a significant role in it, to make a change."
Mendenhall said keeping Nelson in the entire game was a decision made by offensive coordinator Brandon Doman.
"I think with Riley being the starter, and the game being as it is, and to go from start to finish, is a really good experience, and a necessary experience right now," he said. "Riley hasn't played that much this year, and those repetitions are all valuable repetitions, and all those game management situations are critical. I think it was a wise decision, probably the right thing to do."
Mendenhall was impressed with the way the Nelson-led offense caused problems for SJSU's defense.
"I loved the energy of our football team, and I loved the diversity that our team had in terms of number of weapons," he said. "You know, sprinting one way and the throwback screen, and just the mobility (Nelson) gives us. I think it makes us more difficult to defend, currently, with where we are."
Alisa, who played linebacker as a freshman in 2008, rushed 16 times for 91 yards and helped the Cougars grind out the win against the Spartans.
"We have been looking for a running back that would run over, through, slash, fall forward and get positive yards, and he has been doing that in practice," Mendenhall said. "And the last two weeks, he has really started to gain our attention as the need has started to be apparent. Mike and his performance at practice has started to become very clear."
Now, after spending the past month at home, the Cougars head out on the road, facing a Pac-12 opponent in Oregon State that recorded its first victory of the season with a 37-27 triumph over Arizona at home last weekend. With the win, the Beavers halted a six-game losing streak dating back to last season.
Cougars on the air
BYU (4-2) at Oregon State (1-4)
Saturday, 2 p.m. MT
Reser Stadium, Corvallis, Ore.
TV: KBYU, Fox College Sports Pacific
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @AJeffreyCall
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