Provo • Friday night's college football encounter between BYU and Hawaii developed an obvious storyline last winter: Longtime BYU assistant coach Norm Chow returns to Provo as a head coach for the first time, after having been passed over for the top BYU job way back in the late 1990s.
In July, the new Hawaii coach even added another layer to the intrigue, accusing BYU coaches of "a little bit of tampering" on ESPN's Outside the Lines show. He was referring to the transfer of Michael Wadsworth, a safety who decided on his LDS Church mission to leave Hawaii for BYU but can't be on scholarship this season because Hawaii released him to any school in the country but BYU.
But the obvious angles of Chow's return, the Wadsworth affair, and old WAC foe Hawaii's visit to Provo for the first in 10 years for the 6 p.m. contest at LaVell Edwards Stadium, to be televised nationally by ESPN, have all taken a backseat this week at least for BYU fans.
That's because there's another quarterback controversy brewing in Provo, and nothing gets the juices flowing around Quarterback U. quite like the familiar debate: struggling starter or hotshot freshman?
And what if that struggling starter, Riley Nelson, has an undisclosed back injury that clearly hampered him in the losses to Utah and Boise State? Freshman Taysom Hill relieved Nelson against the Broncos and almost pulled out the win.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday that Nelson will start if his health allows him to go, but acknowledged Tuesday that Nelson wasn't quite ready to practice that day. Media members were not allowed after-practice access to the team or coaches Wednesday, but Nelson did practice quite a bit, according to multiple sources. Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said Monday that coaches would decide within the next 36 hours on a starter, but he and Mendenhall both said nothing would be announced until just before kickoff on Friday.
In his only public statement Wednesday regarding the matter, Mendenhall told his weekly KSL Radio show audience that he would list Nelson as "questionable" for the Hawaii game.
"We will give him every chance [to play], and if he can't go, that's simply because he couldn't go," Mendenhall said.
Obviously, BYU doesn't want to tip its hand to Hawaii, forcing the Warriors to prepare for both quarterbacks, but the little bit of gamesmanship won't likely matter. Hawaii gave up 69 points to Nevada last week and has one of the worst defenses in the nation. Still, the issue has dominated the airwaves and discussion on Twitter this week, with most BYU fans seemingly ready to see the reins handed over to Hill. If so, the 6-foot-2, 218-pound returned missionary from Pocatello will become the second true freshman to start a game at quarterback for BYU in three seasons, joining Jake Heaps.
"I am planning on playing," Hill said Tuesday. "As far as my preparation, that's what I need to do. That's the mindset I have."
Nelson acknowledged for the first time on Monday that his back pain was affecting him mentally and physically. But he said Tuesday in his final pregame media interview of the week that it will be up to the coaching staff to determine whether he can play, because he won't ever step aside on his own.
Riley Nelson's numbers
Before back injury (vs. Washington State, Weber State)
Comp-Att Yards TDs Ints Rushes Yards TDs
43-65 529 3 1 15 37 0
After back injury (vs. Utah, Boise State)
Comp-Att Yards TDs Ints Rushes Yards TDs
21-44 209 2 4 21 47 0
Nelson was injured during BYU's second game, against Weber
Hawaii at BYU
P At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Kickoff • Friday, 6 p.m.
TV • ESPN
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Series history • BYU leads 20-8
Last meeting • BYU 41, Hawaii 20 (Dec. 3, 2011)
About the Cougars • They are coming off two losses and have not lost three straight games since early in the 2010 season when they fell to Air Force, Florida State, Nevada and Utah State. … They have held opponents to 14 points or fewer in the first half in 16 of their last 17 games. … Wide receiver Cody Hoffman has caught a pass in 23 consecutive games, which is the 18th-longest streak in the nation.
About the Warriors • Head coach Norm Chow spent 27 years at BYU as an assistant coach. … They are 0-8 in Provo and have lost eight of their past nine meetings with BYU. … They are 5-7 when televised by ESPN on Friday night games. … They are 3-12 in nonconference road games since 2002. … Punter Alex Dunnachie will make his season debut after serving a three-game suspension. He started the last three seasons.