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Dick Harmon: BYU football: Riley Nelson picks up where he left off

Published: Sunday, Oct. 9 2011 12:45 a.m. MDT

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson (13) waits for the ball during the second half of a football game against San Jose State at the Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson (13) waits for the ball during the second half of a football game against San Jose State at the Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

PROVO — Oh, the Life of Riley.

Oh, the return to the days of the old WAC, where BYU quarterbacks routinely feasted and threw the bones off the table to the dogs.

Riley Nelson, fresh off his heroics in BYU's dramatic comeback win over Utah State last week, got his first start of the season against San Jose State on Saturday night in LaVell Edwards Stadium, and he looked every part the Cougar quarterback of the days when BYU's passing attack beat WAC teams like a drum and defenses were as cross-eyed as a Rottweiler in a wiener stand.

Nelson picked up right where he left off a week ago against the Aggies.

For half a game on Saturday, we saw BYU and WAC football. BYU defeated San Jose State 29-16.

With his added threat of the run, he extended the pocket and kept San Jose State at bay and guessing with a horizontal passing game. Then he went vertical.

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson (13) runs with the ball during the first quarter of a football game against San Jose State at the Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. BYU won 29-16. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson (13) runs with the ball during the first quarter of a football game against San Jose State at the Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. BYU won 29-16. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Nelson completed his first four passes, none of them less than 10 yards. He missed his fifth pass, then hit he completed his next four tosses for 21, 35, 1 and 40 yards. He caught McKay Jacobson for bombs as the senior made double moves unforeseen this season.

After BYU's fourth possession, Nelson was 8-for-9 for 145 yards, three touchdowns and a blistering pass efficiency rating of 334.3 at that stage of the game.

For you non-stat nerds out there, a pass efficiency rating of 150 is considered very good. A rating of 165 is outstanding. The NCAA leader this week is Robert Griffin III of Baylor with a gaudy 230. The leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy this season are Stanford's Andrew Luck (178.1) and Boise State's Kellen Moore (170.8).

Riley threw an interception on his 14th pass of the game. And he still had a pass efficiency rating of 229.9 at halftime because he was 10 of 14 for 174 yards, 3 touchdowns and that one interception.

Oh, if BYU had only opened the season against a WAC team, how much confidence would this beleaguered, score-impaired Cougar offense had gained in September? Credit Nelson. As a starting quarterback, despite his critics, he delivered something sorely needed by Brandon Doman and BYU's offensive players — and the defense: Confidence by efficiency.

Granted it was a San Jose State team that had the lowest Jeff Sagarin rating of BYU'S season, 110th (Utah State was 109th while Ole Miss was 77th, Texas 10th, Utah 34th, Central Florida 73rd).

And sure, the Spartans came to Provo really hurting offensively when star running back Brandon Rutley could not play due to an ankle sprain. Rutley's absence was huge because his 102 touches on offense were more than anybody else on the team and he is a great weapon.

But given that perspective, take nothing away from Nelson.

His presence on the field set the tone for the game and catapulted BYU to a commanding 23-6 lead with help from linebacker Kyle Van Noy's second-quarter interception that set up Nelson's 40-yard touchdown bomb to Jacobson.

BYU's offense had painfully struggled on third-down plays this season. Because of Nelson's efficiency and running ability, BYU never got into a third-and-long until late in the first half. He kept BYU on a trend of making first downs on first and second downs. On that first long one, a third-and-10, all Nelson did was hook up with Jacobson for a 22-yard gain.

Nelson was BYU's leading rusher at halftime with 42 yards. He had 62 in just over a quarter of play against the Aggies, the previous game when he came in for Jake Heaps.

Nelson's running ability has had an instant positive mark on BYU's offense. Where Doman has been begging for more production with the run game against very tough defenses, Nelson' run game gives BYU an extra blocker (10) to help push it on the grass.

Question is, how sustainable is it before injury? Nelson did fumble at SJSU's 3-yard line on BYU's first possession of the game. It is tough to be a running QB.

The other question mark, still unanswered, is how effectively can Nelson stretch a better defense than BYU saw Saturday with the Spartans? Jacobson dropped a nicely placed Nelson' bomb in the first half at the goal-line that was defended closely. On two other pass attempts past the 25-yard range, SJSU defenders intercepted them, the first when BYU's receiver may have failed to sit down in zone coverage, the other just fluttered enough for reaction by corner Bene Benwikere.

He also dodged a howitzer shell late in the third quarter when a bootleg play blew up and he launched a punt into SJSU's secondary that nobody successfully hauled in by either team.

In that third quarter, Nelson was 0-for-4 with one interception and BYU managed only a Justin Sorensen field goal. Going back to the end of the first half, he was 0-for-5 with two interceptions. Call it SJSU halftime adjustments and Doman going to the run game.

Nelson's pass rating dipped to 167 as the fourth quarter began.

Nelson lucked out in the final period on what looked like a screen play pick six when SJSU linebacker Tiuke Tuipolutu dropped the ball while eyeing a 70-yard return.

Nelson ended with a rating of 159.6 for the night, 14-of-21, three TDs, two picks, and nine carries for 65 yards.

How good was the defense Nelson faced? The Spartans led the WAC in turnovers gained and had seven interceptions in their last four games. The Spartans ranked 86th in pass efficiency defense coming to Provo. BYU had previously faced No. 1 Central Florida and No. 5 Texas in that category, and those two picks gave Nelson 40 percent of interceptions (2 to 5) of Jake Heaps in the previous five games.

But this is all fodder for the water fountain this week.

On Saturday, the story was Nelson in his first start.

The junior energized his teammates and they followed him. He made big play after big play, so much so his three turnovers were forgotten.

Nelson delivered BYU a 4-2 record, just two victories from bowl eligibility.

But more importantly, he helped dispatch a much-needed, trio of critical elements to BYU's offense: confidence, sense of urgency and efficiency.

This, on Saturday's homecoming night, was The Life of Riley.

Email: dharmon@desnews.com

TWITTER: Harmonwrites

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