Brigham Young University backup quarterback Riley Nelson, the forgotten man on the Cougar sidelines since losing his playing time last season to a shoulder injury and supposed budding superstar Jake Heaps, re-emerged Friday night in the nick of time for BYU.
The Logan native whose family history there goes back to the 1920s and is tied to Utah State like few other families in the Cache Valley, rescued the Cougars' season, most likely.
And against his former school, no less. Completing a Hollywood-like script only Disney could seemingly imagine, Nelson threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Mathews the ball was tipped near the goal line by an Aggie defender, who was flagged for holding on the play to give the Cougars an improbable, dramatic 27-24 win over the hard-luck Aggies on Friday night in front of 63,512 stunned fans and a national television audience on ESPN.
BYU students stormed the field after the win over a team the Cougars were favored to beat by a touchdown, a team that still hasn't won in Provo since 1978.
Nelson "definitely sparked our team," said receiver McKay Jacobson, who caught the 40-yard desperation heave from Nelson in the final minute to put the Cougars in scoring position.
With the Cougars trailing 24-13 in the fourth quarter, Nelson got the comeback started with a short drive that resulted in a missed field goal. Then, he threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Cody Hoffman. Suddenly, a lethargic BYU team came to life. After the Hoffman TD, Nelson drove the Cougars to the USU 27, only to see J.J. Di Luigi fumble the ball away.
But he wasn't finished.
Taking over on the BYU 4-yard line with 2:36 remaining, Nelson was promptly sacked for a 2-yard loss. Then he directed a drive that will be re-lived forever in Cougar lore and remembered with anguish by the Aggies (1-3), who have now blown leads of 10, eight and 11 points in the last half of the fourth quarter in three games.
"It was really desperation, and quite a bit of luck," he said.
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall described the game as "an epic struggle" and a "great battle" and a "very even football game, equally matched." He said Utah State "played well enough to win the game for all but the last … whatever it was."
Two minutes, roughly.
Suddenly, Mendenhall has a quarterback controversy on his hands. He declined after the game to say who will start against San Jose State next Saturday, but spent much of his postgame address extolling the virtues of Nelson's versatility, grit and heart. In the next breath, he said Heaps' psyche will be fine and the players haven't lost confidence in the sophomore.
Asked who should be the starter next week, Nelson said, "I don't make personnel decisions" and later responded with a "no comment" to a similar question.
Making his 15th straight start, Heaps was booed several times by the sell-out crowd. He was 11 of 25 for 107 yards when offensive coordinator Brandon Doman had seen enough. He sent in Nelson, who started at quarterback for Utah State as a freshman, and whose grandfather, Rod Tueller is a former USU athletic director after Heaps' first two possessions of the second half netted just 15 yards.
"Undeniably," said linebacker Brandon Ogletree, when asked if Nelson's entrance revitalized the downtrodden Cougars.
Nelson, not known as a thrower, completed 10 of 14 passes for 144 yards and the two TDs. But he also hurt the Aggies with his legs, running for a team-high 62 yards.
"Riley realized it was his opportunity and he ran with it," Mendenhall said. "He is someone that I admire for just the natural competitive mindset that he has."
Now more than ever.
R In Short • Logan native and former Utah State quarterback Riley Nelson relieves a struggling Jake Heaps and leads the Cougars to a dramatic come-from-behind win over the hard-luck Aggies.
Key Moment • Nelson replaces Heaps with five minutes remaining in the third quarter and sparks a lackluster Cougar offense with two touchdown drives.
Key Stat • Utah State has blown leads of 10, eight and 11 points in the fourth quarter this season.