Kragthorpe: Utah State treated cruelly by ex-Aggie Riley Nelson
Just when you thought Utah State's September could not possibly get any worse, or the Aggies could not be treated any more cruelly, here came Riley Nelson, rallying the BYU Cougars in the fourth quarter Friday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Somebody's making up this stuff, right?
Only by having Nelson a Logan native, ex-Aggie quarterback and grandson of a former USU basketball coach and athletic director become responsible for BYU's 27-24 victory could the world conspire this much against coach Gary Andersen and the Aggies.
Of course, Nelson threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter after relieving an ineffective Jake Heaps, who was benched for the first time in his college career.
Of course, the Cougars drove 96 yards for the winning score after taking possession with 2:36 remaining.
Of course, the touchdown pass was intended for another receiver, tipped by Aggie defender Will Davis and caught by BYU's Marcus Mathews in the end zone with 11 seconds left.
USU senior linebacker Bobby Wagner claimed to not know that Nelson played at USU in 2006. That hardly seems believable even though Nelson, who started seven games as an Aggie freshman, announced plans to transfer during his church mission in 2008, when Brent Guy was USU's coach and before Wagner arrived on campus.
Regardless, you'd better believe that everybody else in Logan is aware of Nelson's history. While he's well remembered by some residents, his transfer was controversial, and having him haunt USU this way is tough for many fans to take. Nelson persevered through a shoulder injury last season and, considering he seems destined never to play a major role for BYU again, he deserved something good to happen.
Just not against the Aggies, necessarily. Logan may wake up to nuclear winter, after this.
This whole sequence of events makes USU's losses to Auburn and Colorado State seem rather routine. At the time, each of those defeats seemed punishing enough, but this one easily topped them. The Aggies easily could be 4-0, having led by at least three points in the final minute and by between eight and 11 points in the fourth quarter of all three losses.
"Why it is, I don't know," Andersen said.
Andersen handled himself well in the postgame interview. Maybe it helps that he's had a lot of practice in September.
"I'm not asking for anything anymore," he said, managing to laugh.
Just the same, anyone would have to feel for Andersen. "My heart goes out to him," Wagner said. "It's not his fault. It's the players' fault. We've got to make plays."
Trying to rebuild the program, Andersen stands 9-19 in his third season. A second straight win over BYU and the Aggies' first victory in Provo since 1978 would have done wonders for his project. Instead, the former Utah defensive coordinator, who lived through BYU's last-play victory in 2006 and a fourth-and-18 completion that led to the Utes' win in Provo the following year, was subjected to more misery from BYU.
Andersen tried to be philosophical, suggesting that someday, his players may draw from this experience as they deal with adversity in their lives. "That's the only positive I can see," he said, "so trust me, I'm grabbing onto that, hoping that's the case."
USU obviously responded well to last weekend's double-overtime loss to CSU, dominating the Cougars for three-plus quarters. So their season is hardly over, with a full Western Athletic Conference schedule to be played. But this game in particular will stick with their followers, who live for in-state credibility.
Several plays will eat at them for a long time. With a 24-20 lead, the Aggies could have positioned themselves for an important field goal (after BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall chose not to try for a two-point conversion). The Aggies faced third-and-6 at the BYU 28. Running back Michael Smith caught a short pass from Chuckie Keeton, but BYU linebacker Uona Kaveinga caught him for a 2-yard loss.
Facing a 47-yard field goal, well out of Josh Thompson's range, Andersen ordered a fake. Thompson's pass was incomplete. The incompletion did not hurt the Aggies as much as simply missing the chance to push the lead to seven points.
The Aggies seemingly got the break they needed when Chris Harris recovered JJ Di Luigi's fumble at the USU 28 with 3:53 left. Even after the offense failed to move, USU was fortunate again as Cache Valley product JD Falslev failed to field Tyler Bennett's punt, which rolled for 67 yards to the BYU 4.
BYU actually lost 2 yards on the first play, and needed six plays just to reach its 34 with 1:01 left. The critical play was Nelson's scramble and 40-yard heave to McKay Jacobson, moving the ball to the USU 26.
Another what-if: Who knows how USU's secondary would have played during the final drive if not for the ejection of McKade Brady in the first quarter after his personal-foul penalty for hitting a BYU receiver.
In any case, after Nelson ran for 13 yards, his pass over the middle was tipped by Davis and went right to Mathews for the score. USU was called for holding on the play, which would have given BYU the ball at the Aggie 6 with 11 seconds left. Of course, the penalty was declined, giving BYU the victory and leaving only this question: What could possibly happen to the Aggies next Saturday, when they host Wyoming?