Provo • Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out what departed quarterback Jake Heaps is thinking right about now?
From sports radio talk shows to Facebook and Twitter, that question swept through Cougar Nation on Friday, a day after starting quarterback Riley Nelson committed four turnovers while playing hurt in Thursday night’s punchless 7-6 loss to Boise State.
Nelson, of course, wrested the starting spot away from the sophomore Heaps — now redshirting at Kansas — in the fifth game last year and has held it ever since. But his poor play the last two games, corresponding with his back injury, and the way freshman Taysom Hill almost pulled off the comeback at crazed Bronco Stadium has the coaching staff in another quandary regarding who to start against Hawaii on Friday, and fans wishing Heaps had been a little more patient before bolting.
Both offensive coordinator Brandon Doman and head coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged after the Boise State game, for the first time, that the injury Nelson suffered when he took a helmet to the back against Weber State is worse than anybody in blue has been letting on. Last Monday, Mendenhall said Nelson was “full go” and Nelson himself said he was OK and was not limited in the turnover-filled 24-21 loss to Utah.
“He’s hurt bad,” Doman told Robbie Bullough of BYUtv after the game Thursday. “He’s fighting through an injury that is significant. He’s probably one of the toughest human beings I have ever known. ... [There was] a point in the game we realized he wasn’t going to be able to give us everything that we needed him to give us, and so we made the change.”
The Cougars committed their fifth turnover, a Mike Alisa fumble, on Hill’s first play as the every-down quarterback midway through the third quarter. The freshman’s next three series ended with punts, but with 8:03 remaining, he engineered the 11-play, 95-yard drive for the game’s only offensive touchdown.
“Obviously, I want to play. That’s the [competitor] in me. Ultimately, that’s up to the coaches. We will just prepare and get ready for our next game,” Hill said when asked if he should be the starting quarterback next week.
Mendenhall, meanwhile, was quick to defend Nelson after the game, while alluding to the senior’s injury issue.
“Riley is our quarterback. I love him, and I want him to be healthy. ... I don’t have any different feelings than I did going into this game [regarding Nelson],” Mendenhall said. “... He won’t come out unless you drag him out.”
Doman told BYUtv that he wanted to take Nelson out after BSU’s pick-six by defensive lineman Mike Atkinson, but Nelson asked for one more drive. He picked up a first down with a 6-yard run, but, after another Alisa run was stopped, threw an interception that was deflected at the line of scrimmage and picked off by Jeremy Ioane.
So it appears that coaches have a decision to make, much like they did last year after Nelson rallied the Cougars past Utah State in relief of Heaps. They went with Nelson, who threw three touchdown passes in the first half in a 29-16 win over San Jose State.
“I don’t know that we have a decision to make,” Doman said. “It is all dependent on Riley’s health, and whether or not he can play like he is capable of playing. He’s got to be able to play Riley Nelson football. If he can’t play Riley Nelson football, then we will have to go to an alternative plan.
“But I am not worried about those decisions. I just want to get him healthy and then, ultimately, whether Riley or Taysom is playing, we can’t make the mistakes we’re making.”
Hawaii at BYU
P Friday, 6 p.m.
TV • ESPN
A closer look
BYU quarterback Riley Nelson has started all four games for the Cougars this season. Freshman Taysom Hill has played in all four games this season. A look at their stats:
Pass Comp-Att-Int Pct Yrd TD Avg/G
Nelson 64-109-5 58.7 754 5 188.5
Hill 6-14-0 42.9 78 1 19.5
Rush Att Yrd Avg TD Long Avg/G
Nelson 36 135 2.3 0 20 21
Hill 21 129 5.4 3 17 28.2