PROVO — If he’s deemed healthy enough, he’s ecstatic for the opportunity. That just doesn’t mean he should expect many smiling faces across the sideline.
BYU quarterback Riley Nelson, the former Utah State signal-caller and Cache Valley legend, says he “desperately” wants to lead the Cougars (3-2) on the LaVell Edwards Stadium turf Friday night against the Aggies (4-1).
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall has emphasized that Nelson, who has been battling back pains, will be the starter, despite freshman Taysom Hill’s stellar performance (255 total yards, two touchdowns) last week against Hawaii. Citing a loyalty to Nelson, Mendenhall made the choice clear following his team’s shutout of the Warriors.
“Taysom is doing his part,” Mendenhall said, “but there isn’t as much history between he and I like there is between Riley and I.”
For some Aggies — despite Nelson’s superior game time experience to Hill — they wouldn’t mind.
Nelson has indeed been the choice often during his playing career, be it as a Parade All-American and Gatorade Player of the Year at Logan High School or as a true freshman for USU, leading the Aggies in 2006 to a victory in his first-ever Division I game.
Though he may have shared time behind center with Jake Heaps in 2010, he was a hero to Cougar fans ever since working what many called the “Riley Nelson Miracle,” a Sept. 30, 2011 comeback win over USU.
The rest of the season, he was a hit. Even a show of celebration made fame; his high-five of a referee against TCU last October played prominently into an all-Riley commercial from BYUtv.
Weeks into the 2012 campaign, Nelson has not remained as popular. After a wild loss at archrival Utah and a pitiful offensive outing against Boise State, legions are calling for the senior, healthy or not, to take the bench in favor of Hill — and the general future of BYU football — regardless if he’s healthy enough to face the Aggies’ nationally 11th ranked defense Friday.
Nelson, a two-time nominee for the Y-Service Student Athlete of the Year Award, knows it’s real. That doesn’t mean he approves.
“Unfortunately, it’s more criticism than respect,” he said when asked if being willing to play at a self-estimated 65 percent last week was admirable. “I guess that’s what happens at the major college football level.”
With the adversity he feels, then, does the star wish he had never left where he shined in the first place?
“Well, how many of us have perfect crystal balls?” Nelson said. “I have the utmost respect for Utah State. There just seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel. Now, they’ve seemed to have a 180 degree turnaround.
“I know where they’ve been, and they really climbed out of a hole,” he said of a program off to its best start in 34 years — also the last time USU beat BYU in Provo, and seven years after the last time the Aggies beat the Cougars and Utah in the same season. “They’ve done work. … I really expected nothing less from coach Andersen.”
Yet despite his injury — Nelson said he now feels 80 percent healthy in dealing with the injury, probably sustained against Boise State — he said he remains happy with his transfer.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” he said.
Bojay Filimoeatu agrees with Nelson on that point, but for other reasons. In hearing Nelson’s assessment about leaving USU largely because he saw no hope for the program, the senior linebacker emphasized his contentment with seeing Nelson 125 miles from Romney Stadium.
“If he didn’t think there was anything here, then we wouldn’t want him here,” Filimoeatu said. “That shows who he is as a man.”
Filimoeatu has other motivations for Friday’s contest concerning Nelson. Filimoeatu, among the WAC’s leaders in tackles for loss, seeks payback to Nelson’s heroics against USU, when the 6-foot, 199-pound senior replaced Heaps in the second half. Facing a 24-13 deficit entering the fourth quarter, Nelson’s deep touchdown throw to Cody Hoffman made it anyone’s ball game. However, the Cougars found themselves still trailing and in their own territory with just one minute left.
That’s when Filimoeatu, by his own words, had his chance. Nelson found himself scrambling for his life in a broken play when Filimoeatu broke free of BYU’s offensive line. For a moment, the senior linebacker found himself alone with Nelson.
He just couldn’t close the deal. Filimoeatu lunged, Nelson escaped, and with a plant of his feet, Nelson uncoiled a 40-yard completion to McKay Jacobsen, setting up the tipped go-ahead touchdown pass to Marcus Mathews moments later.
Tantalizingly close — and for the Aggies, a bona fide chance to beat the Cougars with opportunities fading. BYU is scheduled to travel to Logan next season, and Utah State will visit Provo in 2014 and 2015. Because BYU wants to arrange more 2-for-1 home-away deals and USU doesn’t, nothing is scheduled beyond that point.
“Both quarterbacks are so similar, that we prepare the same,” said Filimoeatu, echoing Andersen’s assessment. “But I had him for the sack. He shouldn’t have gotten away.”