The play that haunted BYU quarterback Riley Nelson, the one he really wished the Cougars could have back, came early in the fourth quarter of Saturday's loss to No. 10 Oregon State.
A ball that a BYU player batted into the air turned into an OSU touchdown.
Nelson had nothing to do with that sequence.
Yet that's the play he immediately cited after the 42-24 defeat at LaVell Edwards Stadium. That's not a case of denial about his own game, as much as a recognition that if Nelson ever is going to deliver a landmark victory, he's going to require some favorable bounces and some dominance from BYU's defense.
In the absence of such assistance, Nelson was left with his standard outcome against a very good team: He lost. His usual mixed performance left everybody with the same, old feeling after the latest Riley Referendum: The defeat was not entirely his fault, but he was not good enough to win alone.
Actually, Nelson accused himself of personally trying to do too much, offering another snapshot of his work against quality opponents over the past three seasons. He's a playmaker, which sometimes works against him as much as for him.
Nelson passed for 305 yards, a figure inflated by shovel passes to running back Jamaal Williams. He threw three interceptions two were horribly forced, and another bounced off his receiver and was returned for a late touchdown.
This will be Nelson's legacy as a Cougar, unless BYU somehow knocks off No. 7 Notre Dame next weekend. He will have stirred some excitement, produced some nice numbers, made his own fans cover their eyes at times and generally never quite made himself truly memorable in this program.
Saturday was another such opportunity, and it just did not happen and there's plenty of blame, beyond Nelson. Here were the Cougars, trying to upset a top-10 team in Provo for the first time since Ty Detmer beat Miami in 1990, and Detmer was in town, being honored at halftime. And wouldn't you know it, the best quarterback on the field was wearing Ty's old No. 14 the Beavers' Cody Vaz, making his first career start.
Vaz passed for 332 yards and three touchdowns, which means OSU's defense played much better than BYU's formerly No. 5-ranked group.
That part is out of Nelson's control, obviously. Coming into the game, everybody figured 24 points would be sufficient for BYU. That's why coach Bronco Mendenhall, his own defensive coordinator, could blame himself and applaud the offense's "progress."
Yet in his return from a back injury that hampered him in losses to Utah and Boise State and kept him out of two subsequent wins, Nelson also left a lot of potential points on the field.
His up-for-grabs interception inside the OSU 25 in the second quarter was egregious; his erratic throws that short-circuited other drives also were costly. Trailing 28-21, BYU had first-and-goal at the OSU 10, but Nelson missed two connections and then was sacked. The Cougars settled for a field goal an achievement in itself this season, but not good enough in this game.
"If they're going to score touchdowns," Nelson said, "we have to answer with touchdowns."
Nelson and his offense did not have enough answers Saturday, leaving only questions about how he'll be regarded on a campus where Detmer and other QBs have created a very high standard.