Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
He's well-aware that these days, Cougar QBs are judged in large part by how they fare against arch-rival Utah. It's a major benchmark in terms of how their performances are measured and their legacies viewed.
"I understand it. I know why there's so much importance placed on that," Nelson said. "To me, that's more for when it's all said and done and the playing days are over and you walk around with a little bit of bragging rights. I don't think about that now. I'm sure 10 or 15 years from now, that will be fun to look back on. But the biggest thing I want to be remembered by is wins and losses. And if we're able to beat Utah, then that's another win against a very good opponent."
Nelson will start against the Utes for the first time in his career Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
At least one stat is on Nelson's, and BYU's, side. When the Cougars start a senior quarterback, they have won 10 of the last 11 games against Utah, including three in a row.
Dating back to 1974, every senior QB but one has defeated the Utes — a list that features Gary Sheide, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, Ty Detmer, Steve Sarkisian, Brandon Doman, John Beck and Max Hall. Only Kevin Feterik (1999) failed to beat Utah as a starting senior quarterback over that stretch.
"As I look back on my experience, and I only (started) 16 games, but everybody remembers when we beat Utah," said Doman, who helped vanquish the Utes in 2000 and 2001 and currently serves as BYU's offensive coordinator and quarterback coach. "Whether or not they were pretty football games or not, we won the games. That had a significant impact on how people treat me in regards to being a quarterback. That's something the quarterbacks who have been regarded as the greats have accomplished."
By virtue of being in the program, Nelson has been around quarterbacks that have experience beating Utah, including Doman, Beck and Hall.
"I've been around them forever," Nelson said. "If I were to sum up all the conversations about (playing Utah), it would be that you just have to be you. You can't make the game any bigger than it is. They all say that when it didn't go their way, they were trying to do too much and trying to take on too much on their shoulders. I've just got to go out and be me."
Certainly, this game will be one of Nelson's toughest challenges. And a victory over Utah would be the biggest of his career as a starter so far. As BYU's starter, Nelson has posted a 10-3 record, having beaten Washington, San Jose State, Oregon State, Idaho State, Idaho, New Mexico State, Hawaii, Tulsa, Washington State and Weber State.
Nelson began his career in 2006 at Utah State, where he started the final eight games as a true freshman before he departed on a mission and transferred to BYU. For the first time, he'll face Utah as a starting quarterback.
"I've learned a lot," Nelson said of his collegiate career. "I've been exposed to a lot of different stadiums and a lot of different environments, and none quite like this (at Utah). But I'm hoping the body of work, or the culmination, of those seven years make it so that walking out on the field on Saturday, I can be nice and poised and calm and be able to execute our game plan … In my experience with this game, a recurring theme that happens is there's way too much emotional and psychological buildup. We've got to keep that to a minimum."
BYU running back David Foote is glad Nelson is leading them into Saturday's battle.
"Riley has an incredible poise about him. He's very confident, and I think that spreads to the team," he said. "That's a great thing to have. He prepares hard, so when he gets out there, it's second-nature to him. He does a great job of that and the rest of the team feeds off of that."
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