PROVO — Jake Heaps and James Lark got a taste.
It's November, a very bland month for BYU, and suddenly the quarterbacks were center stage Saturday night in BYU's 42-7 win over a bad University of Idaho team.
Starter Riley Nelson? Well, BYU's Superman ran into some kryptonite: A Ridell helmet.
Benched Heaps returned to a significant role after a 42-day absence. Lark, who had all his reps taken away at the end of September, got the first real playing time of his career. He ran onto the field in a blowout as early as late in the third quarter.
You had feeling one of these games Nelson might get injured. His physical play, his gutty runs, his grit extolled by coaches and teammates alike? Well, there's a price to pay for that kind of play.
Ironically, Nelson got hurt on pocket pass plays. He broke some ribs and it was not due to his fearless running. He wasn't trying to leap a building or out-race a bullet. He was standing, still, a target painted on his chest.
In the first quarter, Nelson took two direct hits to his chest from pass rushers.
Both were solid thud shots and both took their toll. The first came on a near interception on BYU's sideline when a Vandal defender plowed into Nelson just as he released the ball. He didn't get up as quick as he normally does, but an unsportsmanlike penalty on the sideline on that play kept the drive alive.
The second shot came on the end of that drive when Nelson threw his second-longest touchdown pass of the season, a 32-yard strike to Cody Hoffman. Again, Nelson took a helmet crash to the sternum with 8:26 left in the first quarter and never returned.
It was strange indeed that Nelson's wings got clipped in the pocket, doing nothing but trying to pass like a standard BYU pocket quarterback.
In this regard, Nelson was defenseless, doing his job. His strength, his escapable legs and feet were planted to make a play and it cost him.
For Heaps, it was simple: A Call to Duty.
For Lark, 2-of-6 for 21 yards, it was "Trains, Planes, and Automobiles" fun, a ride he'd never expected.
Heaps completed 15-of-20 passes for 185 yards, two TDs with one interception. He had McKay Jacobson drop a 40-yard pass and finished with a 175.7 efficiency rating — pretty standard for BYU QBs in the WAC days of yore. And Idaho was solid WAC fodder.
Nelson had enjoyed the benefit of playing against less-than-stellar opponents for more than a month. Now it was Heaps' turn.
At the end of a week when Heaps found himself the topic of media attention whether he'd redshirt next season or transfer, who knew he'd get his job back?
Unpressured, unlike his appearances against Texas, Central Florida and Mississippi, Heaps showed some touch: a beautiful 21-yard pass to Hoffman at the end of the first half put the Cougars up 28-0.
Heaps led the Cougars to three scoring drives in the first half. Running the two-minute offense, he found JD Falslev wide open in the middle of Idaho's zone coverage and rifled a 21-yard laser to set up his scoring toss to Hoffman on the next play.
After a third-quarter pick, Heaps rebounded with a perfect 18-yard scoring strike to Ross Apo.
The significance of the Heaps-Nelson situation Saturday night is two-fold.
First, little question BYU would have won the game, and probably the last three with either quarterback. Idaho's offense was so bad BYU's defense regularly served back the ball to Heaps and Company like the return line at Wal-Mart.
Second, if Nelson is unable to return Saturday against New Mexico State, can he make up ground with his teammates and the coaching staff for future decisions?
Generally speaking, Bronco Mendenhall has never taken a starter's job away due to injury. If a guy gets back, he gets the work.
I'd expect that to be the case.
So BYU's quarterback job the rest of the season very well may end up on the call by the team doctor and trainer. Days? Weeks? Diagnosed with a broken rib and hospitalized overnight, Nelson could make it back if not threatened with a punctured lung. Heaps played in a bowl game with a cracked rib last December.
Regardless, it was a big deal for Heaps to get back on the field and throw.
It was good for his psyche, his development, his relationship with his teammates and the coach who brought him to Provo and then benched him — Brandon Doman.
Changing QBs at BYU is a big deal, whether by performance or injury.
The issue definitely spiced up a cold night game that tested many a BYU fan to leave the comfort of their living rooms and TV and be in LaVell Edwards Stadium to watch the Cougars play 2-8 Idaho.
Suddenly, BYU's season got a little more interesting in November.
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