Holy War Boils Down to Riley Nelson’s Performance
As Riley Nelson goes on Saturday, so goes the hopes of the No. 25 BYU Cougars in their Holy War showdown with the Utah Utes.
Nelson was not a factor in last season’s 54-10 debacle in Provo, the worst BYU loss in the long series between these two in-state rivals.
He came into the game in the final five minutes after the outcome had long been decided. This season, he figures to be the key factor in the Cougars’ effort for redemption.
It really boils down to this.
If Nelson can throw the ball and complete passes against the Utes’ press coverage on Saturday, BYU will be very difficult to defeat. If he can’t deliver through the air, then this game will likely be a low-scoring, slugfest that will go down to the wire.
Both teams have had issues at offensive line so far on this young season. The Cougars have struggled running the ball between the tackles against the suspect defenses of Washington State and Weber State, while Utah’s offensive line has had issues all the way around.
The Utah defense traditionally plays tight man-to-man coverage on their opponent’s outside receivers, essentially putting their cornerbacks out on an island. The philosophy forces opposing quarterbacks to be more accurate and to throw passes into smaller windows than usual. And consistently humming the ball into tight windows hasn’t exactly been Nelson’s forte during his career.
Luckily for Riley, he has a couple of tall, talented receivers to go to. Both Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo have the ability to make plays even when they are covered. Nelson has the confidence that if he can get the ball in the same zip code of his towering duo of receivers, they will more often than not come down with the catch.
The Cougars wideouts will have a particular advantage when matched up on Utah’s 5-foot-9 cornerback Ryan Lacey. The other corner, Moe Lee, is a more rangy athlete who goes 6-foot-1.
If Nelson can find a way to connect with Hoffman and Apo, then it opens everything else up for the BYU offense. Conversely, if the Utes DBs are effective at taking away the Cougars’ two big weapons, then Utah has the ability to stuff the run and limit the Cougars’ mid-to-short range passing game.
The senior signal caller worked hard on his passing skills this past summer. Saturday will tell if all that offseason work has paid off. So far this season, Nelson has completed 66 percent of his passes, compared to 57 percent last year. However, his per completion number has fallen off, dropping from 14.8 yards per completion last season to 12.3 this year. His yards per attempt are down as well, dropping from 8.4 yards in 2011 to 8.1 in the first two games of 2012.
And although opposing teams fear Riley’s ability to make things happen with his legs, his rushing numbers are also off, averaging just 2.5 yards per carry after averaging 4.5 yards last season.
Critics have also pointed to the fact that Nelson doesn’t have a signature win as starting quarterback. Last season he defeated just two teams, Utah State and Tulsa, which finished the year with a winning record. He didn’t start against USU, but came in late and rallied the Cougars to a come from behind win. In his biggest test as a starter last season, the Cougars self-destructed in a 38-28 loss to TCU in Dallas Cowboys Stadium.
On Saturday, Riley has the chance to get that marquee win. A victory on the home field of BYU’s arch-rival in a pay-back game would certainly go a long way towards his making a name for himself as a BYU quarterback. Come Saturday, Cougar Nation will have been waiting for a total of 363 days to get the bad taste out of their mouths from last year’s game.
Defensively, BYU looks to have the upper hand on a Utah offense that is struggling and will be without starting quarterback Jordan Wynn, who was forced into retirement by yet another shoulder injury in last week’s 27-20 overtime loss at Utah State. It’s hard to imagine the Ute offense having a big day against the Cougars regardless of whether it is Jon Hays or Travis Wilson who is called upon to fill in for Wynn.
So if Nelson can manage to keep the Utah defense honest with his arm, the advantage should swing to BYU.