SALT LAKE CITY —
Has it really been just a year since Riley Nelson became BMOC (Big Man on Cougs)? It has indeed.
What just happened here?
September 30, 2011, was a pretty regular day, right up until the point where Nelson subbed for Jake Heaps against Utah State. The rest is Rudymentary football: a feisty, undersized backup, who once looked into switching to defense, suddenly becomes the starter. He throws from the port side, but then again, so did Steve Young. His passes are high and slightly wobbly, yet find their target with regularity. Plus, he can kill defenses with his rushing.
And he has hair a supermodel would envy.
He probably won't stick in the NFL, but he has a heck of a future as a L'Oreal pitchman.
One year later, Nelson has quieted most of his critics by winning games, including last December's Armed Forces Bowl. But you want to know how to really seal his reputation?
Beat Utah on Saturday.
A win would not only improve his stature, but assure that after graduation he'd never again have to buy his own lunch in Provo.
Nelson, of course, is already as popular as ice cream among BYU fans. If there's a more likable quarterback around, the public needs to know. He has charisma coming out his helmet holes, thanks to a perfect blend of confidence and humility. Yet he doesn't do all that much self-editing as he speaks.
"It feels good," he said last summer, describing how it feels to go into a season as the undisputed starter. "I'm ready and rarin' to go."
That might sound a little cheesy, but he says it with such enthusiasm, it's hard not to believe him.
Ask about his predecessors and he'll openly admit he has studied with/about John Beck and Max Hall.
"Going back, you want to follow patterns of success," he said. "I'm going to be me, and I could never be Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer, Gifford Nielsen — I could never be those guys — but there are aspects of their game that I could try to implement."
He went on to say he watched film of Young to learn when to take off running and when to slide. (Did Young ever slide?) He studied Detmer to know how to take what the defenses allow. While there isn't nearly as much film of McMahon, Nelson can rattle off stories of teammates' devotion to Mad Mac.
"They'd jump in front of a train for him," he said.
The mental aspects of the game, on and off the field, came from studying Nielsen.
"So I feel that has all accelerated my progress here at BYU," he said.
He got that right. It's hard to imagine that 12 months ago he seemed destined to a lifetime of backup oblivion. The way he tells it, the coaches approached him a few months earlier and said they were "going in a different direction" — a phrase no one wants to hear, whether coming from an employer, spouse, child or coach.
Nelson talked them into using him on special teams, but said he wanted to remain a reserve quarterback rather than switch positions. Not long after the 2011 season began, Heaps was struggling.
By some measurements, Nelson's chances of beating Utah are fantastic. With a senior quarterback playing, BYU has won 10 the last 11 games against the Utes. While Utah is adjusting to the loss of starter Jordan Wynn, Nelson is hitting his stride. He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in every game since that fateful night against USU.
His passing efficiency this year is a respectable 146.67 with a nice 66 percent completion rate.
The Cougars have stated they want to balance about 300 yards passing per game with 150 yards rushing, which Nelson has made happen. After just 350 days as a starter, he is third on the school's all-time quarterback rushing list.
Thus, Saturday is D-day for Nelson — Delivery Day. Beating Utah State again would be nice for him. Beating Utah would be momentous.
If you don't believe that, go back and count how many of BYU's great quarterbacks never beat the Utes.
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