After the first college football game that quarterback Riley Nelson started six years ago, his Utah State teammates carried him off the field on their shoulders.
The more likely ending Thursday night for Nelson is having pitchfork-wielding fans of his own school chase him into the tunnel of Qualcomm Stadium after the Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State.
Whatever the conclusion is, nobody could have scripted any of this in his career, much less all of it: His transfer to BYU, his alternating with Jake Heaps, his annual injuries, his miraculous finishes, his near-misses and his frustrating performances have converged in a story unlike any quarterback’s in the state’s football history.
Wow. When he’s gone, what will any of us have to write about?
“Mostly, I’ve come to the conclusion that it was all supposed to happen for a reason,” Nelson said after a recent practice in Provo.
Whether he’s ultimately remembered for overachieving or falling short of BYU’s standards, for being determined or stubborn and for winning more than his share or losing games he shouldn’t have lost, Nelson will have his own permanent place in Cougar lore.
The way he personally hopes to be perceived “doesn’t matter,” Nelson said. “Everybody’s going to have their opinion. There’s very little I can do, especially when I’m done playing, to change people’s opinions. So we’ll let it be what they are.”
The final impression of Nelson appears likely to come via a reduced role for him Thursday, after his injuries created more practice time for James Lark.
Regardless of how it ends, his two-school college career will have featured some indelible moments, including the touchdown pass that beat Fresno State in Logan in his starting debut, the improbable 96-yard touchdown drive to top USU after he replaced Heaps, the improvised fake-spike play against Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl and the picking apart of Washington State in this season’s opener.
Then there are the what-ifs, especially the comeback that fell short at Utah, the narrow defeat at Notre Dame and the tough loss at San Jose State. The irony is that the toughness that otherwise might have endeared Nelson to the BYU faithful helped make him vilified. He tried to play when he shouldn’t have played — or, more accurately, shouldn’t have been allowed to play.
He’s the quarterback who delivered a touchdown pass against Idaho in 2011 on the same drive when he absorbed a hit that resulted in a collapsed lung. Nelson came back this season and played with a fractured back, sustained the week before the Utah game. Imagine if BYU’s field-goal attempt had forced overtime at Utah and the Cougars had gone on to win. Nelson would be remembered much differently. Instead, the ball hit the upright and bounced away.
“I take great pride in the fact that I even went out there and competed and was able to have moderate success,” Nelson said.
Five days later, he took the field at Boise State, with disastrous results. Taysom Hill finally replaced him in the third quarter of a 7-6 loss, and who knows how long Hill may have kept the job if not for being injured two weeks later? As it was, Nelson returned and lost to Oregon State, Notre Dame and San Jose State (while beating Georgia Tech and Idaho) before a rib injury sidelined him for the regular-season finale at New Mexico State, where Lark excelled.
Nelson’s 11-8 record as BYU’s starter would be enhanced if he’d been healthy for games against Hawaii and NMSU (twice). Of course, it also would be better if he’d sat out against Utah and Boise State.
That’s his legacy, adjustable only to the extent the Poinsettia Bowl opportunity can provide. After that, he’s targeting medical school in 2014, with this qualifier: “One thing I’ve learned,” he said with a wry smile, “is that plans change. That’s something that college football’s taught me.”
On the record
Records for quarterbacks since BYU’s passing era began in 1973 (minimum 10 starts):
Quarterback Years Record Pct.
Robbie Bosco 1984-85 24-3 .889
Brandon Doman 2000-01 14-2 .875
Jim McMahon 1978-81 26-4 .867
Marc Wilson 1977-79 22-4 .846
Max Hall 2007-09 32-7 .820
Steve Sarkisian 1995-96 21-5 .808
Steve Young 1981-83 20-6 .769
Ty Detmer 1988-91 29-9-2 .750
Gifford Nielsen 1975-77 17-6 .739
Sean Covey 1987-88 13-5 .722
Kevin Feterik 1997-99 21-12 .636
Steve Lindsley 1986 7-4 .636
Jake Heaps 2010-11 10-6 .625
John Beck 2003-06 22-16 .579
Riley Nelson 2010-12 11-8 .579
Gary Sheide 1973-74 11-8-1 .575
Bret Engemann 2000-02 5-6 .455
Matt Berry 2000-04 5-10 .333