BYU wins game it needed to in front of national TV audience
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
The billboard leading up to BYU's season opener was the return of Washington State coach Mike Leach to the college sidelines.
When placed in the record books, the Cougar defense did not allow Leach's offense in the end zone and led BYU to a 30-6 victory.
Openers are always a guessing game but four things stood out in BYU's opener: BYU's receiver corps, Riley Nelson's debut as an accurate senior, a very nasty Cougar defense and perhaps the deepest and quickest seen in Provo in some time.
Now, we don't know how good Washington State is or will be in October. The return of Leach drew national headlines including the featured story in USA Today's sports section on game day. But BYU gladly took this 24-point win and 1-0 start.
Nelson really warmed right up after a dull opening series in which he tried dink and dunk passes that went nowhere.
Nelson still forced several ill-advised passes trying to make things happen in the clutch or on the run, but he looked more than the gutsy model of 2011 — he was more polished.
Riley finished 25-of-36 for 285 yards and 2 touchdowns.
After completing only 2-of-6 passes, the senior leader made good on his next 9-of-11, including eight in a row. After that 30 percent completion start to the game, at the half, he completed 13 of 17. He finished the first half with an impressive 76.47 percent accuracy, a figure that surely made Brandon Doman smile. At intermission, he was a respectable 16-of-24 (66 percent) for 178 yards and a touchdown.
What stood out about that is that Nelson lost his most talented receiver, Cody Hoffman, on the 16th play from scrimmage in the first quarter. Hoffman absorbed a big hit above his knee after catching a 12-yard catch on BYU's first TD drive of the season, the second Cougar possession. Hoffman is expected to be OK but suffered a thigh contusion.
Riley mixed it up and spread the ball around, but the big story with his targets was the emergence of tight end Kaneakua Friel and Skyler Ridley, a sophomore who was on an LDS mission in 2010.
Friel is a 6-foot-5, 250-pound junior who reminds you of fellow Hawaii product Itula Mili. He may not have the speed and footwork of Mili, but he has great hands, presents a big target and his catch-and-run on BYU's third touchdown displayed his power when he ran over WSU corner Rahmel Dockery at the goal line. Mack Truck met Huyndai.
Nelson hit Friel like Steve Young used to do Gordon Hudson. His 101 yards and two touchdowns were the first by a BYU tight end since Pitta in 2009 against Air Force.
Ridley literally came out of nowhere. We've seen him make catches consistently in fall practice and he turned a few heads. But his emergence is huge for Nelson and Doman because he has great hands, decent speed and knows how to get open.
Kudos to the work of receivers coach Ben Cahoon. He discovered Jeff Frandsen, Andy Boyce and Eric Drage clones in Ridley and J.D. Falslev. Ridley had five catches for 45 yards and one touchdown.
BYU missed Hoffman, but it didn't kill Doman's attack this night.
A year ago, the Cougars climbed atop the NCAA stats in third-down conversions (51 percent). Nelson looked very sharp in working down progressions while he looked off targets. Nelson triggered a 59 percent night in that third-down make category.
The Friel coming out party Thursday night looms big because he stepped out of a pack of BYU tight ends that have been plagued by injuries and inexperience since Dennis Pitta and Andrew George departed the program.
BYU's defense, penalty prone, did show a lot of attitude.
And plenty of swagger.
Led by Kyle Van Noy sacks, sophomore corner Jordan Johnson lived up to billing. Johnson picked off Jeff Tuel and returned it 64 yards to set up a BYU field goal and 27-3 advantage in the third quarter. Earlier, safety Daniel Sorensen tipped a pass that Uona Kaveinga intercepted in the first half.
The minus-5 rushing yards allowed were the fewest a team coached by Bronco Mendenhall has ever allowed.
Leach's Air Raid attack, albeit newly installed with a senior quarterback, didn't get in the end zone — even with a Pac-12 officiating crew doing some serious nylon whipping of Mendenhall's defense (10 penalties for 112 yards).
BYU corners covered and tackled. The Cougars executed a nice nickel coverage, sending Joe Sampson as a designated playmaker. The Cougar front seven looked good as advertised — fast and experienced.
This is a game BYU was favored by 13 points. It was a contest against a Pac-12 foe that BYU absolutely had to win in a home opener on ESPN with several national pundits on hand to cover the return of WSU coach Leach.
With 29 seniors on his squad, Bronco Mendenhall needed this win and had to look decent out of the chute.
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