Riley Nelson was in rare form Monday night, even for a guy with a backache. As he usually does during rivalry week, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall allowed only himself and the team captains to speak to the media last night. Because Nelson is a captain, there weren't that many complaints. He's probably the best interview on the team, and fellow captain Brandon Ogletree isn't bad, either.
Nelson said he took a helmet to the back during the Weber State game, which apparently caused the back spasms that led to him sitting out the entire second half.
"It is good. It loosened up. I am getting treatment. It is a non-issue," he said.
Somebody asked Nelson whether the hostility in the BYU-Utah rivalry has decreased, and he had a pretty interesting answer.
"So I grew up a Utah State fan, and I don't think either of these two schools are more hostile [towards each other] than Utah State was towards BYU when I was growing up. So I know they like to think they are hostile, but it was worse being an Aggie fan and having to sit through blowouts. And that anger kind of boiled up inside you.
No, I don't know. I don't get on the internet, I don't read papers, I don't ... Fans, when we have our little fan day or whatever, 'just do one thing for me, beat Utah.' So I know that is important to our fans. But for us, we know that we are playing a quality opponent on Saturday and need to prepare well, and then come out and execute."
Nelson said that doesn't mean he expects Utah fans to be on their best behavior Saturday night. He knows Rice-Eccles is going to be a zoo.
"I have played a lot, and been exposed to a lot of different stadiums, and a lot of different environments, but none quite like this. But I am hoping that the body of work, kind of the culmination of those seven years, make it so that walking out on that field on Saturday, I can be nice and calm and poised, and be able to execute our game plan," he said.
Ogletree said Nelson is going to be just fine.
"I mean, Riley is Riley. He's a gamer. He's going to play as hard against Weber State as he is against Utah, and so I am excited to see what he does. That's all I can say about that. I can't really speak for what is going on in his head right now. ... I am not worried about Riley. I think he is mature enough to do whatever he has to do to get ready for the game. I have enough to worry about with myself."
I was kind of struck at how much BYU's captains (senior David Foote, a backup RB and special teams ace, is the third captain) were saddened by the news that Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn is hanging it up. And, no, it doesn't have anything to do with the Cougars thinking they would be better off facing Wynn than Jon Hays or Travis Wilson. It was genuine, sincere empathy.
"I feel for Jordan Wynn. He has battled and come back, and battled and come back, and battled and come back. It is hard. So I feel for him. I am sure it is hard for him," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
You can read what Nelson and Ogletree had to say about Wynn's retirement in my notebook from last night's practice.
Also, Tribune television critic Scott Pierce says his national TV sources think the BYU-Utah rivalry is one of the better ones in the nation.
Having covered BYU football full-time for five years now, it seems to me that the Cougars always seem to play defense better against a pocket passer, like Wynn, than a more mobile guy, like Hays or Wilson. I asked Mendenhall about that last night.
"I think we are on the right track [to defending runners better]," he said. " There was a starting point, and then a lot of correction to where, man, we played four or five of them. And I don't think they had great success against us. So I think we have a good plan, that way already within our schemes, so I don't think it will take any additional inventing, so to speak. We will just use what we already know how to do."
More comments from Mendenhall from last night's 10-minute chat with reporters:
On how ready BYU is to play Utah:
"Hard to say. I think we have a good start. And I can't gauge how Utah is in relation to how they have been before. I think [they are] similar. We won't know until we play, but I like our team to this point."
On Utah's defensive line:
"They are talented, and they are big and physical. And I think when you look statistically, both defenses are playing really well. So it will be interesting to see how that shapes out."
On his impressions of the Utah-Utah State game:
"It was a fun game to watch. ...After the fireside we did the night before the game, I got back and there was five-ish minutes left. So I saw that part, with our team, at a snack. Both teams tried hard, and Utah State started strong, and kinda believed they could win the longer it went. They were in position to win. It was fun to watch their excitement.
And then, man, to have a field goal chance, or two field goal chances, right at the end, and then to have overtime, those are great instate games. We have had our share of those, and now, that's just another one, as Utah State is getting better."
On whether this is the best shape BYU has been in going into a rivalry game:
"Healthwise, I would say so. Again, each game and each opponent is so different. So the contrast from last week, in playing Weber State, to now playing the University of Utah, the style of offenses, and the different personnel and different plays, but at least we have healthy players, and man, I like that part."
On whether it is good to have national ranking recognition at this point:
"Sure it is. And I don't think we have really ever left it. Other than my first year, when we didn't get in. The rest of those years, it seems like, the rarity now would be if we are not in the rankings. You just never know what week of the year, and how we finish, etc. So it is a nice token of respect, I guess. The expectation is that we are going to be there, and when we get a couple wins, people just assume, yeah, that's where they belong. But it is way too early to put more credibility on that. But it is nice to be acknowledged."