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Honolulu • Before Riley Nelson delivered those great escapes and crazy passes he's known for in the second half to lead the comeback, the BYU quarterback delivered a fiery speech in the locker room.
Sparked by the junior left-hander's impassioned plea to settle down and play, the Cougars overcame a three-point deficit at halftime and routed Hawaii 41-20 in front of 30,765 fans at Aloha Stadium.
"Guys were frustrated, guys were mad," said Nelson, downplaying the speech that sparked the lethargic Cougars. "We were bad today [in the first half], not making touchdowns."
Different story in the last half, as BYU scored 28 unanswered points in the third quarter to improve to 9-3 and end Hawaii's season. The Warriors (6-7) needed a win to earn an invitation to the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, and played like it in the first half before getting overwhelmed in the second.
Nelson said he knew he would start since Tuesday, but the plan was kept under wraps and he was a supposed "game-time decision" after not having played for three weeks due to lung and rib cartilage injuries. Then he went out and had a career game, completing 25 of 37 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns.
"I really liked it," said coach Bronco Mendenhall, asked about Nelson's performance.
Trailing 13-10 at halftime after giving up a 79-yard touchdown pass and 210 total yards to the Warriors, the Cougars took control of the game by driving 72 yards in nine plays on their first possession of the second half.
Nelson's 12-yard TD to Ross Apo, Apo's second TD grab of the game, gave BYU a 17-13 lead, but it was Nelson's falling, in-the-grasp 21-yard completion to Cody Hoffman on third-and-8 that prolonged the drive.
But Nelson wasn't finished.
Later, after Joe Sampson's 26-yard fumble return for a touchdown Uona Kaveinga knocked the ball loose gave the Cougars some breathing room, Nelson hooked up with Hoffman again for a 38-yard score that Mendenhall called one of the greatest plays the Cougars have made this season.
Nelson somehow escaped a defensive lineman's grasp, then spotted Hoffman, who made a one-handed catch on his way to the end zone. A left-handed catch.
"I credit it to the defense, that defensive TD that gave us a lot of momentum," Nelson said.
Mendenhall called it "a complete win," but there were some early hiccups. The Cougars got just 10 points in the first half after driving inside the Hawaii 30-yard-line four times. Justin Sorensen missed a couple of field goals and made one in the first half.
Nelson's first TD pass got the Cougars on the board after Hawaii struck first with a TD after a pass-interference call on BYU in the end zone.
"You could see [at halftime] that the execution was coming. We just had to tighten up a few things," Mendenhall said. "In the second half, we played with a little bit more emotion and were execution-sound. We made a few adjustments schematically and then were able to win comfortably. I am proud of our football team. I think we improved again."
Apo, who caught four passes for 55 yards and the two TDs, said the Cougars needed a wake-up call.
"They came out and punched us in the mouth, and we all felt disrespected," Apo said. "Everybody at halftime was mad, and Riley gave us a little speech, and that got us fired up."
Defensively, the Cougars played much better in the second half, too, allowing the Warriors just 89 yards after the break, and many of those came during garbage time; Hawaii scored with 5:55 remaining in the game.