Tom Smart, Deseret News
PROVO — Riley Nelson can't rely on BYU's defense to rescue him come Saturday night in San Jose.
He must wear a hard hat, carry his lunch bucket and perform the role of the laborer in directing the Cougar offense. He accepts the challenge.
Against the Spartans, Nelson will face a stout, capable top 20 defense and his counterpart, San Jose State quarterback David Fales, is the nation's No. 4 passer.
Nelson will need to put lots of points on the board, like he did against Idaho. But this foe is not Idaho.
How will Nelson do it?
He'll need to keep rookie running back Jamaal Williams and receiver Cody Hoffman on the field as long as possible, move the chains, and eat up turf and clock in drives that end with scores. Against a sack-hungry and capable SJSU team, he's got to act quickly and accurately. And he's got to do it with a banged-up, ever-changing offensive line.
In meeting that challenge, Nelson says for the first time in months, he's never felt more capable than now.
Nelson battled extreme pain, discomfort, limited range of motion, diminished ability to run and sat out two games after suffering broken vertebrae in a win over Weber State 78 days ago. Nelson says he's feeling his strength return just in time for BYU's home-stretch run in November.
"Just to feel more normal, to be able to run without pain, it's a big improvement and I feel a huge difference," said Nelson.
A three-touchdown hookup with Hoffman last Saturday against Idaho helps.
But San Jose is not Idaho. Nelson knows that.
As a member of a big BYU senior class, Nelson knows the importance of winning his team's final two regular-season games and subsequent bowl game to finish with a nine-win season.
He also knows the coming weeks can help his legacy, one that right now has wins over weak to average teams and losses to the likes of ranked Notre Dame, Oregon State and Boise State. To date, his best career wins have been over Utah State in last year's regular season and against Tulsa in last year's Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas.
Inside BYU's current 6-4 season, victories have come over foes with a combined record of 10-39 or .204 win percentage.
Three Cougar wins have come over a trio of one-win teams (Hawaii, Weber State and Idaho). BYU's best victories this season are over 8-2 Utah State and 5-5 Georgia Tech. If a three-point loss at Notre Dame, which ties for the closest game for the Fighting Irish, is some kind of additional credibility factor, Nelson and BYU's offense do have that.
No question a healthier Nelson has helped BYU's offense and given offensive coordinator Brandon Doman more flexibility in his game plans and play calls.
A win over 8-2 San Jose State on the road, in this matrix, would be a big deal. BYU will then finish the regular season on the road in Las Cruces, N.M., against a 1-9 New Mexico State team.
"Before the Idaho game, we had a fourth of our season to yet play," said Nelson. "We still have three games. That's a lot of games. If we, speaking as a senior, want to sit back and pat ourselves on the back for winning our final home game with three games left, we are going to finish with a losing record.
"We have to finish and we fully intend to finish 9-4 and to do that it takes increased effort, game in and game out."
Nelson said with the way SJSU throws the ball around and puts up points, it is going to help the BYU defense if the Cougars score quick, often and get off to a good start.
"It will set the tone for the game," he said.
Nelson believes because BYU's offense and coordinator Doman have struggled and seen hard times, the tough going has drawn all parties closer together down the stretch.
"It has helped this season to where right now we're building and gaining momentum rather than just trying to suffer through the end."
After watching SJSU's defense on film, a unit that ranks No. 7 nationally in sacks, Nelson knows he has to deliver the ball fast, make good decisions and not get caught for losses.
On one night this week, he specifically focused film study on SJSU's defensive strategy on third downs and inside the red zone, situations where they routinely get sacks.
Nelson is as ready as he's ever been since the start of the Weber State game.
Will that make the difference come Saturday night?
For the sake of BYU's defense, which will have its hands full with Fales and his No. 9-ranked passing offense, it certainly is key that Nelson finds a way in San Jose.
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