If Friday night’s game was a movie script, you couldn’t have written it any better. The closely contested game, which began with an 80-yard touchdown run by Utah State’s Robert Turbin, came down to the last minute.
Backup quarterback Riley Nelson helped BYU capitalize on a 96-yard drive to overcome an 11-point fourth quarter deficit and beat Utah State 27-24 in front of a sold-out crowd at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Hundreds of Cougar fans rushed the field as time expired to celebrate the dramatic win.
“It’s definitely tough to go the length of the field with so little time left,” wide receiver McKay Jacobson said. “We could tell the momentum was all on our side. We were going to fight until the end. All of us had a good feeling that something special was going to happen. It just goes to show that we fought with our hearts the whole game.”
Almost as if straight from Remember the Titans, with the Cougars down by eight points, Nelson was put in the game partway through the third quarter. After scoring one touchdown and missing a field goal, Nelson took command of the offense again for the last drive on the Cougars’ 4 yard line with only 2:36 left in the game. After getting sacked on the first play, the Cougars slowly made their way down the field. With less than a minute to go, Nelson found himself scrambling, buying time to find an open receiver. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally found Jacobson on a deep 40-yard pass.
“We had a double move, it was a sprint out to the right,” Nelson said. “They had it covered up really good. It’s a desperation situation and you just have to stay alive. … I just kind of threw it to the middle of the field. It was really desperation and quite a bit of luck.”
On the next play, Nelson ran a designed quarterback draw for 13 yards and another Cougar first down. Utah State called a timeout with just 15 seconds left on the clock. When play resumed, Nelson took the snap, took a few steps back, then launched the ball downfield toward running back JJ Di Luigi. The pass bounced off the hand of an Aggie defender and looked as if it was going to fall incomplete. But tight end Marcus Matthews was a few yards behind Di Luigi and hauled in the deflected pass to give BYU the go-ahead score.
“There’s like 14 seconds left and McKay just made his big catch a play or two earlier,” Matthews said. “We just all ran up the field to try to get to the end zone to score. JJ ran this bending route up the middle and I stayed up the hash on the seam. My guy was playing me on the outside … so when JJ tipped it, the ball went through the middle of the field and I ran over and caught it. Easy. JJ made it easy for me.”
The Aggies had one play and 78 yards to try to get in the end zone, but the Cougar defense covered the play and the long pass was unsuccessful.
To add to the drama, it’s worth noting Nelson was a high school standout from Logan, who still holds nine state passing records. He then went on to earn the starting quarterback spot at Utah State his freshman year of college. After serving a two year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Nelson decided to transfer to BYU.
“You’re the backup quarterback, not much is expected of you,” Nelson said. “If you go in there and don’t play too well, that’s kind of what people expect. And if you go in there and play great, all of a sudden you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
Utah State, who was coming off an overtime loss to Colorado State, was looking for its first win in Provo since 1978. The Aggies got off to a good start by stunning BYU on the opening play as Turbin exploded for an 80-yard touchdown run. The Aggie running game continued to be successful as the team racked up 284 total rushing yards. But the defense struggled once Nelson was inserted into the game, and BYU continued its home win streak against Utah State.