Riley Nelson needs the ball to bounce his way in Atlanta on Saturday.
It may come on a tipped pass a tight end or receiver catches. It may be a breakdown in a defense like Notre Dame showed him in crunch time, but this time he connects on the gimme. It may be a run play that goes the distance. It could come in the form of a BYU field goal attempt that is four inches to the left or right.
Whatever it is, against this average ACC team, it is going to take an exceptional effort by BYU’s defense and a good break for Nelson and his offense for the Cougars to avoid coming back to Provo with a losing record.
For Nelson’s entire career, he’s made plays against lesser opponents but struggled to find that one or two pieces of luck or timely bounce to put him over the top against the tougher foes.
It’s that elusive set of plays that Nelson and his coach, Brandon Doman, yearn for and desperately need; they need a few more Tim Tebow moments.
That's because Georgia Tech averages 37 points a game, and probably will on Saturday too. The Cougar defense will be stretched in a way it has not experienced all season. It is a game coach Bronco Mendenhall’s defense will scream for the offense to match points.
BYU has not scored more than 37 since Sept. 28, when defenseless Hawaii came to Provo. The BYU quarterback that day was Taysom Hill. Before that, you’d have to go to the 45-13 win over Weber State, the game Nelson injured his back.
Nelson’s signature win, the victory in a Cougar uniform that up till now is his legacy, is that dramatic entry off the bench in last year’s Utah State game, when he moved BYU down the field for a comeback victory. Even at that, it was decided on a 13-yard pass play that went his way, a tipped pass off the hands of an Aggie defender to tight end Marcus Mathews in a 27-24 win with 11 seconds left.
That kind of play is what’s lacking in BYU’s three of four losses in a 4-4 year season heading to the showdown at Georgia Tech.
Paul Johnson’s team’s weakness is its defense. It ranks 77th in total defense and scoring defense. After two losses in which GT allowed more than 600 yards and 46 points, the defensive coordinator got fired. This is a defense that has allowed 47 points to Clemson and 42 to Miami. And its biggest weakness is the pass rush — something that should give Nelson reason for optimism.
GT's defense is not Utah and it is not Notre Dame. It can be attacked.
Standing beside Nelson outside BYU’s locker room in Notre Dame Stadium, the elusive big play weighed heavily on his mind, after that 17-14 loss to the Fighting Irish.
“I hope one of these days the ball starts bouncing in our favor,” said Nelson.
For Mendenhall, Saturday would be a good day for bounces. His team is seven points from having three more wins and a 7-1 record. If his offense doesn’t throw a lifeline to his defense today, BYU will be 4-5.
"We're playing good teams and we're playing them on the road," Mendenhall said this week.
"It's kind of the next era. When I started this job, and to where it is now, expectations are even higher. The schedule is more demanding. We're playing better football against better teams. That's just what's coming next. I welcome it. But we have to also execute at an even higher level."
This week’s predictions:
Utah 21, California 17: Utes come home and will ride the defense until Travis Wilson finds the right combination in the red zone.
Arizona State 24, UCLA 17: The Sun Devils aren’t explosive enough to keep up with Oregon, but the Bruins are not Nike wonder men.
USC 34, Arizona 14: If the Wildcats have lost to Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford, why not the Trojans?
Stanford 28, Washington State 10: Mike Leach’s club managed 6 and 17 points against Oregon State ane Cal, and the Cougars will need much more against Stanford.
Oregon State 34, Washington 21: The Beavers have firepower and a defense. Not a good combo for Steve Sarkisian.
Utah State 38, UTSA 17: Chuckie Keeton is on a tear and Gary Andersen is on track for coach of the year.
Georgia Tech 37, BYU 34: Not enough guys on BYU’s defense have played against the speed of this triple option. If the offense doesn’t put up points, the defense can’t save the day.
Last week: 7-1; Overall 42-16 (.617)
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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