The BYU football team surprised its fans with a come-from-behind 27-24 win against Utah State on Friday; however, the more surprising fact was that the Cougars weren’t led by starting quarterback Jake Heaps. Instead the team was ironically led to victory by a former Aggie — backup quarterback Riley Nelson.
Before Friday’s game, Heaps had started every game this year and the last 10 of the 2010 season after Nelson injured his shoulder and had to undergo season-ending surgery. The Cougars finished 6-4 in 2010 under the reigns of Heaps, and as a freshman, he set seven BYU freshman records and was the New Mexico Bowl Offensive MVP.
After such a remarkable freshman year, coaches, teammates, fans and some experts expected Heaps to continue to build on his success. But after the first four games, his performance and numbers were only OK. Heaps had completed 89-of-160 passes for 855 yards. He had a mere three touchdown passes but five interceptions on the season, and although quarterbacks aren’t the only ones to blame for a struggling offense, BYU was outscored 101-64 by its opponents during the first four games.
And the game Friday didn’t prove to be a redemption moment for Heaps.
Heaps, who played until the middle of the third quarter, was only 11-for-25 passing for 107 yards against the Aggies but did have the Cougars’ first touchdown, a 1-yard rushing score.
Even though Heaps was taken out, coach Bronco Mendenhall doesn’t believe any of the players have lost faith in their quarterback.
“I think our players see great potential in Jake, just like myself and our offensive staff have,” he said. “And to be BYU’s quarterback, especially at such a young age with the scrutiny, especially if you don’t win or have a stellar game. … This community is difficult. I expect our team to rally around Jake. I don’t think any of them lost confidence.”
But even with the touchdown, offensive coordinator Brandon Doman knew something needed to be done to light a fire under the team.
“He [Doman] thought by having a chance to run the quarterback a little bit, run a little bit more of an unconventional offense. … He thought that was appropriate,” Mendenhall said. “I then OK’d it and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
And with that, Nelson was thrown into the game with high hopes from all those watching, all of which were met in just a little over a quarter of play.
Nelson completed 10-of-14 passes, two of which were touchdowns and another a much-needed 40-yard completion to wide receiver McKay Jacobson on the final drive. He finished the game with 144 passing yards and 62 rushing and led the team on a 96-yard touchdown drive in just under three minutes to put the Cougars ahead 27-24.
As a backup quarterback, Nelson said expectations aren’t high for a backup quarterback, and if they go into a game and play bad, it’s expected; however, if a backup QB make amazing plays “all of a sudden you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
Nelson may not believe expectations are high of him, but his teammates do believe in him.
“Riley is one of the hardest workers I know,” junior linebacker Brandon Ogletree said. “He’s had a tough road and he’s stuck with it. It’s inspiring.”
Ogletree even made the effort to express his belief to Mendenhall during the game.
“Brandon Ogletree came up next to me and said, ‘Coach do you remember the spring game? I believe in Riley Nelson’,” Mendenhall said, referring to Nelson leading his team to victory in the Cougars’ Blue/White spring game. “He was smiling and that made me smile. … That’s kind of where my mindset was. It mattered to me that he believed in his teammates so much that he would come to me to tell me that.”
After the game, Mendenhall said he was proud of Nelson, as well as excited for him and the team. And although he doesn’t want to take anything away from Heaps, Mendenhall said he “wouldn’t put anything past Riley.”
It’s unclear who will start the homecoming game Saturday against San Jose State, but one thing is clear — this “difficult community” seems ready to give Nelson a chance to be more than a backup this season.