PROVO — At first glance the play seemed auspicious enough for BYU, resulting in a spectacular touchdown pass and 7-0 lead.
But Cougar Nation now knows that what transpired with 8:26 remaining in the first quarter Saturday will go down in the annals of history as The Play That Hospitalized Riley Nelson.
With slightly less than nine minutes remaining in the first quarter, BYU's offense ambled to the line of scrimmage at the right hash mark of Idaho's 32-yard line. Quarterback Riley Nelson stood in shotgun formation, flanked in the backfield by running backs JJ Di Luigi and Bryan Kariya on his left and right, respectively. Two wide receivers split out to the left, with another BYU receiver wide right.
At the snap Nelson faked a handoff to Di Luigi and dropped back five steps. An Idaho defensive end took a wide angle around the left side and raced at Nelson unblocked, but the Cougar quarterback eluded collision by stepping up into the pocket. Nelson launched a bomb that traveled 40 yards in the air; in the end zone Cody Hoffman snatched the ball out of the air with acrobatic aplomb.
One problem: as Nelson was stepping up into the pocket to launch the pass, Vandal defensive tackle Michael Cosgrove spurted inside past BYU's All American left tackle, Matt Reynolds. Even though replays showed the 300-pound Cosgrove was more than 2 yards away from Nelson when the ball was released, the defender didn't relent, crashed into the quarterback and drove Nelson into the ground.
Officials opted not to flag Cosgrove for roughing the passer.
"I questioned both officials who were responsible," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "They both saw it and thought it was clean — they thought it was right as or right after he released the football. So (Nelson) took a solid shot on the touchdown throw."
Even if no penalty occurred on the play, the damage was done. Nelson uncharacteristically removed his helmet before leaving the field. Soon he was whisked off the field for X-rays, and about an hour later the news broke that he had a broken rib and would remain hospitalized overnight. Shortly before midnight came the additional diagnosis of a collapsed lung.
As Nelson left the field "he said something to the effect of, 'I'll learn sooner of later,'" Mendenhall recalled. "I don't know what that meant — he didn't run it or try to run over somebody. He's just tough."
Indeed, Nelson's injury is rimmed with irony because it happened while he was throwing and not running. Popular opinion has long held that the slight signal caller — listed at 6-feet, 196 pounds — is at great risk of injury because he often eschews the safety of the pocket to engage in hard-charging scrambling. But on the play that sent him to the hospital, Nelson simply stood tall and threw a beautiful pass.
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