After the Brigham Young Cougars lost a tough game to archrival Utah, it was no surprise that quarterback Riley Nelson would come under scrutiny. How far he could carry this team with his grit, toughness, heart, and leadership has always been in question. Nelson didn’t have one of his better statistical games against Utah. If he couldn’t get it done against Utah, is there any reason to expect him to get it done at Boise this week?
As many others are doing this week, I have done some “soul searching,” so to speak, about Nelson. Should he be the starter, or should someone who is more of a “BYU quarterback” take over that role?
I agree that at 6-foot, 199 pounds, Nelson doesn’t look much like a quarterback. He doesn’t have a cannon for an arm, or even a shotgun. His footwork is shoddy. Basically, he doesn’t pass the eye test.
Nevertheless, Riley Nelson is a “BYU quarterback.”
Any former BYU quarterback will tell you, there is a lot more to playing quarterback at BYU than to “look the part.” NFL scouts may not be saying they are looking for a quarterback that is “gritty” and “gutsy,” but those traits are a common characteristic of successful BYU quarterbacks.
No one will question that Max Hall, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, and Ty Detmer were tough, and their toughness helped them excel. Others who don’t exude the tough guy image as much as these others have still gone out and played gritty and gutsy. Marc Wilson had a burst appendix just weeks before the 1979 season opener. He was still suffering side effects the night before the game. Robbie Bosco played with rib, knee, and ankle injuries in the 1984 Holiday Bowl to lead BYU to the National Championship.
Nelson is similar in size to Detmer (6-foot, 175), Hall (6-foot-1, 201), McMahon (6-foot-1, 182), and Brandon Doman (6-foot-1, 195). Detmer, Hall, and Doman didn’t have very strong arms either.
Statistically, Nelson is measuring up as a “BYU quarterback.” Through the first three games of the season, Nelson has 735 yards passing, 60% completion percentage, 5 touchdowns, and two interceptions. His pass efficiency rating is 134.2. He is on pace to finish the year with 3,185 yards, 22 touchdowns, and just 9 interceptions. While the 22 touchdowns is a little low, the single digit interceptions total is outstanding.
Nelson’s stats against Utah were below average. A 111.2 pass efficiency rating resulting from less than 50 percent completion percentage (17-35) and just 206 passing yards, with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception, is below the BYU standard. However, that isn’t the first time a BYU quarterback has struggled against Utah. In fact, Nelson had a better game, statistically speaking, than Max Hall ever had against Utah.
Max Hall vs. Utah
2007: 17-40, 269 yards, 0 TD, 1 Int., 94.0 pass efficiency
2008: 21-41, 205 yards, 0 TD, 5 Int., 68.8 pass efficiency
2009: 12-32, 134 yards, 2 TD, 0 Int., 93.3 pass efficiency
Bad games happen. All BYU quarterbacks have had them. Of late, Utah has caused a lot of them. Nelson had the team in position to win this game at the very end. Which leads to my final reason, and the “epiphany” that I had after the Utah game, that solidifies Nelson as a “BYU quarterback.”
Nelson brought BYU back from 11 points down to beat Utah State. He repeated the 11-point feat in the Armed Forces Bowl at the end of the year. BYU and Nelson were inches away from making a 17-point comeback against Utah last Saturday.
This team responds well to adversity with Nelson at quarterback. This cannot be overlooked or taken for granted. The team does not quit. They don't give up. They put their heart and soul into it and believe they can find a way to win.
Other recent BYU teams have wilted when falling behind the Utes (2008, 2011). In Max Hall's three seasons at the helm, BYU never came back to win a game after trailing by double digits. The closest the team came from 2007-09 was making a 20-0 deficit against UCLA a 20-17 game before eventually losing 27-17 in 2007.
No, Nelson is not perfect. He has his faults and shortcomings, but he has enough of the right traits to be called a "BYU quarterback."
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