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Dick Harmon: Nelson, Defense come up huge in blowout of warriors

Published: Sunday, Dec. 4 2011 1:31 a.m. MST

BYU quarterback Riley Nelson fakes a handoff to Joshua Quezada, left, before passing in Saturday's game.

Associated Press

BYU and Hawaii … it's baaaaaack.

And in this one, a 41-20 blowout by the Cougars, you could take your pick of whom to present with the most leis on the way out of Aloha Stadium.

Candidate One, of course has to be prime time Riley Nelson. The gutsy junior came off a debilitating rib and lung injury quicker than expected to deliver a career passing game. It was solid gold.

Candidate Two, BYU's defense. Other than giving up a 79-yard touchdown play, Cougar defenders threw a big fish net over Hawaii. When Matt Putnam and Uona Kaveinga laid a big hit on Warrior freshman Joey Iosefa, safety Joe Sampson picked up the fumble for a touchdown run. The play helped ignite an impressive 21-point third quarter comeback, BYU's most explosive quarter in 2011.

Nelson showcased who he is in this game.

Nelson's blue and white mouthpiece made him look a little like a Kentucky backwoods fiddler, but it was his dancing and playmaking that fueled BYU's win.

Nelson is a quarterback who excels in chaos. As a play breaks down, he finds a way to deliver and make defenders pay. He extends a defense and throws off assignments and timing.

At times, it isn't pretty, but it is effective. His energy is infectious.

A little conservative and tender in the beginning, it didn't take long for Nelson to extend plays with his legs against albeit a struggling Warrior defense. Twice, he made what looked like Mission Impossible plays. In the grasp, Nelson launched one of his weather balloons on a crucial third down after halftime for a spectacular jump catch by Cody Hoffman to set up BYU's go-ahead 17-13 touchdown.

Another gem. Nelson almost got blindsided on a third-quarter blitz. Hit but not taken down, he staggered around like a prize fighter, found his legs and enough balance to heave a pass to a wide open Hoffman, who one-handed it for a 38-yard touchdown.

That play might just be the signature play of Nelson's career. It was either that, or the toss to McKay Jacobson on that field-length winning drive to beat Utah State off the bench.

Nelson finished 25 of 37 for 363 yards, 3 TDs and no interceptions with an impressive 176.74 pass rating. What injury?

It was the first 300-yard passing day since 343 in a loss to Utah. Before that you'd have to go back to a 300-yarder last year with Jake Heaps against UNLV last season on Nov. 6. And before that, you'd have to go back 11 games to find a 300-yard passing day by a Cougar QB.

The other part of this weekend is the Jake Heaps sweepstakes. Will he stay or will he go?

BYU is going its way without Heaps this year. And if he stays, he'll redshirt.

It is obvious something is up with Heaps and the man who brought him to BYU, offensive coordinator and quarterback Brandon Doman.

When Doman benched Heaps in the Utah State game, he elected to choose the energy brought by Riley Nelson over opportunities to develop a strong-armed passer who needed seasoning and reps in and out of the season.

Heaps' situation could find a turning point on the plane trip home from Hawaii. Sooner than later, he'll have to say he'll stay at BYU and wait out the Riley Show, or leave to be developed elsewhere.

If Heaps transfers, there is urgency to the steps to pull it off.

If Heaps leaves, there are some critical moves that should be made in the next 48 to 72 hours. If he is to enroll at another school, he must ask for a release from his scholarship and financial aid from BYU's athletic director Tom Holmoe. BYU does not stand in the way of athletes who want to transfer.

A release allows Heaps to openly be in contact with other schools and allows recruiters from those schools to contact him, recruit him, host him on recruiting trips and seal a deal.

The time issue here is interesting. BYU's fall semester ends in 14 days on Dec. 17. Many schools start the winter semester Jan. 4. That is 18 days for Heaps to get released, finish recruiting visits, make a decision and enroll in another Division I school where he'll have to redshirt but could get in spring practice to learn a new system.

Either way, whether he goes or stays, it is evident this is Riley Nelson's team.

For two seasons, Bronco Mendenhall has looked for some kind of leadership answer for the offense, either in the booth or on the field, since Max Hall left with Harvey Unga and Dennis Pitta.

While it is only a piece of the puzzle, Nelson is snugly wedged in where it absolutely counts.

Only an injury to this gritty battler from Logan can change things.

Saturday just added a layer to Nelson's legacy.

email: dharmon@desnews.com

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