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BYU football has had many stories within its story this season, but one at the forefront is this: The Curious Case of Riley Nelson.
In Nelson, BYU has a student-athlete who demonstrates many of the admirable qualities it would want in a high-profile player. He’s tough, plucky, a leader, a seemingly decent young man who likely will go on to great success in life. He’s made the most of his talents as a Cougar quarterback. There’s only one problem: He never should have played the position at BYU.
He’s not good enough.
He’s tough enough. He’s plucky enough. He has enough leadership. He’s a decent enough man. He’s fulfilled his potential. But, in all his determination to make the most of himself and to get and keep the job, he’s left a hole at the single position where BYU cannot have a hole. It doesn’t matter how good its defense is, how talented its wide receivers are, how promising its young running back is.
Without the right trigger, the BYU offense seizes up like an engine with sludge in its fuel line.
And BYU coaches should have known that. They can’t just get by with grit and determination at quarterback. And, yet, that’s what they tried to do.
It’s not Nelson’s fault he’s been a weak link. It’s a credit to him that he’s tried so hard and overcome so much. He threw for 335 yards against San Jose State on Saturday night, and gave as much effort as could ever be expected of any QB. But BYU’s stalled drives in the red zone, its mistakes, some of them committed by Nelson, including turnovers and missed open receivers, could have been prevented by one bit of coaching insight.
Nelson should have been playing safety.
I know, Nelson didn’t want to play safety. He wanted to fulfill his dream of playing QB at QBU. But Bronco Mendenhall should have known better, should have recognized the fact that the Cougars couldn’t win "at a higher level" with a marginal talent at quarterback. Instead, he rewarded Nelson’s grit with more encouragement and playing time, as though he were a fullback or linebacker.
Mendenhall hooked his fate — and even worse, the fate of his team — to an unsuitable player. And the Cougars are paying for it now, at 6-5. As Nelson overthrew open receivers late in that tight game at Spartan Stadium, maybe Mendenhall was thinking about that. But I doubt it.
Not only was his quarterback a notch below what was needed, he was injured, too. Still, Mendenhall stayed with him because, as the coach said it, "He gave us a chance to win the game."
He also gave the Cougars a chance to lose it, which is precisely what happened. Again.
Having interviewed past Cougar quarterback greats, they’ve detailed what it takes to properly play the position at BYU: an accurate arm, good decision making, toughness, the willingness to take on the mantle. But it’s bigger than just that. BYU’s quarterback gives energy and hope to the entire team.
Remember the days when the Cougars came out flat in a game against a good opponent, and, as they fell behind, everyone knew they still had a good shot because they had a quarterback who could bring them back?
Seems like a long time ago.
No matter how diligent and tough and admirable a player might be, it doesn’t work if receivers streaking toward the end zone are missed by five yards.
Nelson seems a great guy and he’ll probably have a great life. But we’re talking football here. That future success won’t bring back victories BYU could and should have had in 2012. Put an average good quarterback from the Cougars’ past on this particular team, with these receivers and that defense, and consider what BYU’s record might have been.
It’s not Nelson’s fault. He did everything he could.
The blame is on the coaches, who are supposed to be experts at their profession. They blew this call and they’ll continue having blown it, even as Nelson moves on to great promise in whatever profession he chooses to pursue outside of football.
Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM/97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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