It appears Riley Nelson’s ribs and lungs will be just fine.
The gutsy junior quarterback had a career day Saturday, completing 25-of-37 passes for 363 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against Hawaii as the Cougars defeated the Warriors 41-20 in Honolulu. Nelson hadn’t played since being injured the first quarter of the Cougars’ game against Idaho on Nov. 12.
After trailing 13-10 at halftime, the Cougars exploded for 28 points in the third quarter and turned the contest into a blowout. With the win, the Cougars finish the regular season 9-3 and won’t play until the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30. BYU will play Tulsa (8-4) in the bowl game.
After the offense struggled to finish drives in the first half, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said he was confident Nelson would regain his finishing touch.
“We [as coaches] didn’t talk to him much, we just tried to let it build,” Mendenhall said. “I think that it took him a series or two or three to get his rhythm. … I was impressed.”
Hawaii initially controlled the game, using a 10-play drive to go 69 yards and score a touchdown on its second offensive series. Quarterback David Graves punched it in from the 1-yard line, and after a missed extra point, the Warriors led 6-0.
The Cougars responded early in the second quarter with a 22-yard Nelson-to-Apo connection. Apo hauled in the pass and managed to stay in bounds in the front corner of the end zone.
Minutes later, following BYU’s second missed field goal of the day, Hawaii regained the lead on the longest play of the game, a 79-yard touchdown pass from Graves to wide receiver Trevor Davis.
Mendenhall faulted himself for the play.
“I made a very poor call,” he said. “It wasn’t the players’ fault. Hawaii made a better play call than I did.”
In the third quarter, the Cougars rewarded their Hawaii fan base with several highlight-reel plays that changed the complexion of the game dramatically. To take the lead, that the Cougars would never give back, Nelson found Apo again for the score. At the 12-yard line, Apo hauled in a short screen pass from Nelson and did the rest of the work, breaking tackles and hurdling players to get into the end zone.
On the Warriors’ next series, junior linebacker Uona Kaveinga knocked the ball loose on a jarring hit to Hawaii running back Joey Iosefa. Defensive back Joe Sampson scooped up the loose ball and ran back 26 yards nearly untouched for the touchdown to put BYU up 24-13.
Mendenhall was impressed with his defense for setting a physical tone toward the end of the game.
“Once we had an idea what they were doing, in the second half I felt we were right on to their game,” he said.
BYU found the end zone on its next offensive series, highlighted by a 40-yard reception by tight end Marcus Matthews to the Hawaii 1-yard line. Senior Bryan Kariya punched it in from there to put BYU up 31-13.
But Nelson wasn’t done. To give BYU its fourth touchdown of the quarter, Nelson used the unlikeliest of plays to do it. Dropping back from the Hawaii 38-yard line to pass, Nelson was immediately under pressure and nearly sacked. He shrugged off his would-be tackler and nearly tripped over his own feet, but managed to roll to his right and sling a pass downfield to an open Cody Hoffman, who made a one-handed grab and sprinted into the end zone.
“When people watch ESPN, it probably ought to be one of the plays of the day,” Mendenhall said of the touchdown. “That’s one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen.”
The action slowed down in the fourth quarter, as BYU added a field goal, and Hawaii scored its first touchdown of the half with a little more than five minutes remaining. The Cougars had an opportunity to add to their lead with less than two minutes left when senior running back David Foote broke off a 56-yard run to Hawaii’s 5-yard line, but the Cougars chose to simply run out the clock in the red zone.
Mendenhall said the decision was a matter of respect.
“I respect the game of football, I respect the Uiversity of Hawaii and Irespect [Hawaii] coach [Greg] McMackin,” Mendenhall said. “There’s no need to score any more points.”