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Dallas • Never have the BYU Cougars been so happy to say, hear and talk about the primary color of their most hated rival.

Yelling "red alert, red alert" in what BYU calls the blue zone — inside an opponent's 20-yard line — Riley Nelson let his teammates know he was not going to spike the ball to kill the clock with fewer than 20 seconds remaining in Friday's Armed Forces Bowl. He then delivered what will surely be one of the most memorable plays in Cougar football history.

Nelson faked the spike, scrambled just a bit and found Cody Hoffman for the game-winning touchdown.

Hoffman, the bowl's most outstanding player, cradled the ball in the north end zone, giving inconsistent-but-gutty BYU a 24-21 victory over Tulsa at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.

"It's your job to come through," said Nelson, who made up for what he described as an "ugly, scary" performance with his third touchdown pass to Hoffman to rescue the Cougars once again. "You owe it to your teammates."

So the Cougars finished 10-3 with the win, the fifth time in coach Bronco Mendenhall's seven-year tenure they have won 10 or more games, and have finally won three straight bowl games in their 30th appearance in a postseason classic.

Not that classic can describe the way BYU played most of the way — especially its offense.

But with the game on the line, BYU's defense stopped Tulsa twice, sandwiching the three-and-outs around a running-into-the-punter penalty that gave the Golden Hurricane life.

And then Nelson took over. Having thrown two interceptions and having completed less than 50 percent of his passes, and having been bottled up every time he tried to take off and run, Nelson somehow directed the Cougars on a 48-yard touchdown drive. He picked up first downs twice on the drive with long runs, including a 14-yarder on fourth-and-9.

"There was no doubt in our minds that Riley was going to find a way to win the game for us," said offensive lineman Matt Reynolds, who set up the Cougars' first touchdown with a block after his helmet had fallen off to free Nelson just before halftime. "No doubt at all."

The call from the sideline was for Nelson to kill the clock after Marcus Mathews' reception got the Cougars to the Tulsa 3. Nelson had other ideas, drawing upon a play he saw NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino execute from a much longer distance.

"We had it in our bag of tricks," Nelson said, noting that "I don't think that way" when it was suggested he should have followed the coaches' orders. He called a "high-reward, low-risk play."

And it worked.

Mendenhall acknowledged the Cougars played sloppily much of the game and credited not only offensive stars Nelson and Hoffman, but a BYU defense that held Tulsa to 37 net rushing yards on 27 attempts. The coach said punter Riley Stephenson, who pinned Tulsa inside its 20-yard line on seven of his eight punts, and BYU's special teams as a whole was the difference in the game.

"We have a strong reputation of, when games are close, to find a way to win," Mendenhall said.

Meanwhile, Nelson's legend grew on Friday as well before an announced crowd of 30,258 and an ESPN television audience. He completed just 17 of 40 passes for 250 yards and the three TDs, and was sacked three times. He missed open receivers time and again, except when it mattered most.

"He pulled another one out," said offensive lineman Terence Brown. "I'm not exactly sure how he did it, but he pulled another one out."

Twitter: @drewjay —

Storylines

R In Short • BYU wins three consecutive bowl games for the first time, toppling Tulsa on Riley Nelson's last-minute touchdown pass to Cody Hoffman.

Key Moment • The Cougars drive 48 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the final four minutes, leaving just 11 seconds on the clock.

Key Stat • BYU punter Riley Stephenson pins Tulsa inside its 20-yard line on seven of his eight punts.

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