Improbably, Nelson led a fourth-quarter charge to rally the Cougars from an 11-point deficit to the 27-24 win Friday night. It was Nelson who began last season as the starter, in name only. He split time with Jake Heaps -- until going down for the season with a shoulder injury against Florida State.
That gave Heaps the opportunity to win the starting job. He played well at the end of last season, and he was anointed the starter headed into 2011 without any real quarterback competition. But Heaps struggled in four-plus games, completing 54 percent of his passes and throwing more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (three).
Heaps was billed as the quarterback of the future. But watching Nelson run and pass his way to a win now means there could be a developing quarterback controversy for coach Bronco Mendenhall to address. He will not announce a starter until at least Thursday.
"Both quarterbacks were, I think, effective," Mendenhall said. "Jake continues to grow and mature and I think he throws the ball extremely well. I think he is going to be a fantastic quarterback. When Riley came in, the analogy I used was it was like our game against Texas. You have to defend a completely different style of quarterback with mobility that has the quarterback run option and it took Utah State a while to adjust to that. How best we will use our quarterback remains to be seen."
Heaps did not appear all that effective against Utah State, going 11-of-25 for 107 yards before being benched in the third quarter.
Nelson accounted for 206 yards of total offense in four drives, going 10-of-14 for 144 yards and two touchdowns, while adding 62 rushing yards on 11 carries.
"He’s someone who has been told you can't do something his whole life. Either he is too short or not a typical quarterback or many other things," Mendenhall said. "He started his career not highly recruited, went to Utah State and then transferred to BYU. He has even been told here and even I had the opinion he isn’t a prototypical BYU quarterback. I think he uses that as a motivator to have a very strong self-concept. He is just a football player and doesn’t consider himself only as a quarterback."
Mendenhall has a tough decision to make. But rest assured, he is not going to use a two-quarterback system again after seeing how it failed last season.
"I don’t think that it’s ideal," he said. "We saw that it was hard to get in a rhythm when alternating series. There is potential that when it is a game like Utah State that we think there is a quarterback change that can give us a lift might be a possibility. I wouldn’t see it going series-by-series, quarter-by-quarter or anything like that. We name a starter and go for a while and hopefully that’s working if not we make adjustments."