Nelson Channels His Inner Dan Marino
By Paul Myerberg // Dec 30, 2011
I remember it well: Nov. 27, 1994, and Dan Marino, along with Bernie Kosar, a forgotten collaborator, shocked the flummoxed New York Jets by pulling the most brazen and audacious of post-snap stunts. Down by a field goal, 24-21, at the Jets’ eight-yard line with 22 seconds left and no timeouts, Marino made the universal signal for spiking the football — yelling “Fire!” and miming the spike, for example — as his team rushed to the line of scrimmage. Up to the moment when the ball was supposed to leave his hands, stopping the clock, all went according to plan for Dolphins and Jets alike. Then it didn’t, and I can still remember the call from the Jets’ radio team: “He stood there like a house on the side of the road!”
He is Aaron Glenn, then a young Jets cornerback; Glenn was caught napping, asleep at the wheel, but he has an excuse: no one — not a single person, I believe — had ever faked the spike, pulled up and delivered to a receiver for a touchdown, such as Marino did to beat the Jets, 28-24, in Pete Carroll’s one and only season with the franchise.
The moment is so ingrained in football lore that now, nearly a generation later, it never works. Well, it almost never works: it worked for Riley Nelson, who may not be Dan Marino but played that role to perfection in B.Y.U.’s late win over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl.
You’d need three Riley Nelson’s to match one Dan Marino, based on arm strength, but Nelson does one thing better than most: he wins games. He moves the chains on third down and fourth down, somehow eluding would-be tacklers with the flimsiest of jukes and spins, falling forward to gain six yards and an inch on third-and-six to keep a B.Y.U. drive alive.
And he knows how to run the old fake-spike-pass, just like Marino: Nelson hit Cody Hoffman, the recipient of each of his three touchdown passes, late in the fourth quarter to beat Tulsa, catching the Golden Hurricanes by surprise in the same way Marino dashed the Jets’ hopes 17 years ago.
What else? Like Marino, with some help from Kosar, his backup, Nelson called his own number. According to Bronco Mendenhall, the call from the sideline was for an actual spike, one that would have stopped the clock and allowed the Cougars to regroup on third down.
Nelson made the late switch on his own, opting instead for the Marino special — a play B.Y.U. calls “Red Alert,” though Mendenhall should rename that “Blue Alert,” if not simply “Nelson,” or “Riley.”
Nelson faked the spike, took a step back and looked to his right. Hoffman rushed towards the back right corner of the end zone before pulling up short, baffling an already bewildered Tulsa defensive back. Nelson threw, Hoffman caught, and it was the coolest moment thus far in bowl play.
So how did Tulsa fall for a play that works rarely, if at all? Ask yourself this: Why do people stand in place and duck their heads when someone yells “Watch out!”? Why do you touch a hot plate at a restaurant even when the waiter warns you not to? Why do we smell the milk even when it’s two weeks past its expiration date, even when you can hear the chunks of curd and nastiness splashing along the carton’s insides?
Because the only thing that trumps surprise is experience, and here’s wagering that Bill Blankenship and his staff don’t spend the last two minutes of practice working on defending the fake-spike-pass. Barring a timeout to talk things over, there’s no way Blankenship could have prepared his defense for the slim chance that Nelson went with the fake spike.
And there was no way Tulsa was calling a timeout in that situation: B.Y.U. was on the doorstep, yes, but the clock was running out. Fourteen, 13, 12, 11… No opposing coach calls a timeout in that situation; doing so would have allowed the Cougars not only keep a down — one that would have been lost on a spike — but also to get the right play and package on the field. There’s no way Tulsa calls a timeout in that situation.
Instead, the Golden Hurricanes stood there like a house on the side of the road. And the pain stemming from this loss? It’s almost incalculable. The Jets’ 1994 season rapidly deteriorated: 6-6 after that game against the Dolphins, New York would drop four straight to end the regular season. Perhaps Tulsa’s lone saving grace is that the team will have nine months to get over the loss.
So we’ve come full circle, from Marino to Nelson and from Nelson to Nelson, with the latter ending his season in the same way it began. He replaced an ineffective Jake Heaps against Utah State on Sept. 30, tossing the game-winning touchdown pass in a 27-24 win with 11 seconds left. Nelson’s toss to Hoffman, his final throw of the year, came with 11 seconds left.
In between, he began to enter his name into B.Y.U. lore. Pretty heady stuff for a transfer who won the job, lost the job and then lost it again before wrenching it back — and here’s guessing that Nelson won’t have to prove himself again, that the job is his for good.
And here’s guessing that Nelson’s Armed Forces Bowl rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick will be his defining moment. It’ll be awfully hard to top over his senior season, seeing that such moments tend to happen once every 17 years and all.
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