Kurt Kragthorpe: BYU's Riley Nelson gets the ending right
The ending did not begin with anything memorable from the player in the middle of it all.
"Everybody watches the movies and thinks the quarterback gives some big speech," BYU's Riley Nelson was saying Friday afternoon.
So in the absence of any classic commentary, as the Cougars took over near midfield in the final moments of the Armed Forces Bowl, the story of BYU's 24-21 win over Tulsa forever will be told by Nelson's actions.
The winning drive salvaged what Nelson described as his "very ugly" performance in the Armed Forces Bowl, which only adds to the lore. His 2-yard touchdown pass to Cody Hoffman with 11 seconds remaining, after Nelson was supposed to spike the ball to stop the clock, will be replayed over and over between now and September.
Amazing, how the perception of this guy can change so instantly and so temporarily. This game was another Riley Referendum in a season filled with telling moments about the present and future of BYU's football program.
In the end, after throwing two interceptions and other errant passes all day, Nelson delivered.
"That's who he is," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Which is to say watching Nelson play can be maddening and discouraging and that's for those who love him.
"My own family was getting quite frustrated with me, and rightly so," Nelson said.
The Nelsons sure know how to script an ending, though. Riley Nelson was on the Rice-Eccles Stadium sideline when his brother, DJ, overcame a rough day by throwing the winning touchdown pass as Logan beat East for the Class 4A state championship.
Six weeks later, Riley took his turn. "It's your job to come through," he said.
Until that last drive, this game was building toward a much different conclusion. The story would become how former Utah State coach Brent Guy's Tulsa defense bottled up Nelson and created an offseason of angst in Provo about the Cougars' quarterbacking, with Jake Heaps already having transferred.
Certainly, Nelson's game created concern, as documented by statistics 17 completions in 40 attempts that even he acknowledged were "kind of scary."
Yet while Guy's strategy mostly stifled the running QB who once transferred from his USU program, Nelson just kept coming. His 14-yard scramble on a fourth-and-9 play kept the last drive alive, and a misspent youth that included watching an "NFL Films" production of Dan Marino's famous fake in 1994 when Nelson was 6 years old led him to call "Red Alert" with the Cougars at the 2 and the clock running.
Instead of spiking the ball, stopping the clock and leaving BYU with two more plays, Nelson took a chance and fired the ball to Hoffman, his former roommate. The risk was relatively low, truthfully, but if Nelson somehow were sacked or intercepted, the ending could have changed and the winter in Provo would have been much longer.
"He'd better throw a touchdown, put it that way," Mendenhall said, only half kidding.
Three months to the day after Nelson's season basically began with a 96-yard, game-winning drive against Utah State, he needed only to take the Cougars half that far to win Friday. The point is, he did it.
So even if Nelson-to-Hoffman could never match the Jim McMahon-to-Clay Brown "Hail Mary" in the 1980 Holiday Bowl against Southern Methodist, the "Red Alert" ending in SMU's stadium will do nicely, for this generation of Cougars.