The Year in Review: B.Y.U. (10-3, 0-0)
By Paul Myerberg // Feb 2, 2012
The suspicion was there in October and November, but it didn’t become official until Riley Nelson duped Tulsa, Dan Marino-style, late in the fourth quarter of December’s Armed Forces Bowl. Then it was official: Nelson’s become a legend. Not quite a Ty Detmer-level legend, mind you; Detmer was legendary, and there’s a difference. Nelson’s a legend in the Merriam-Webster definition of the word, third from the top: “a popular myth of recent origin.” Popular? Nelson’s popularity is off the charts in Provo, thanks to the way he put B.Y.U. on his shoulders and carried it to a 10-win season despite a horribly disappointing start. Mythical? Nelson wasn’t due to see the field at all, so the idea that he’d be the point man behind the Cougars’ second-half climb .
Nelson’s ascension — or return — to the starting role was one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2011 season. It was also one of the most-needed developments experienced by any team last fall, right alongside Mike Glennon’s ability to weather the storm as a first-year starter at N.C. State.
Nelson had his shot, some thought as the Cougars prepared for September, and didn’t make the most of it. He was proclaimed the starter heading into 2010, only to lose his spot to ballyhooed true freshman Jake Heaps after an abysmal performance in an early-season loss to Air Force. Heading into last September, Nelson was worse than an afterthought; with Heaps in the fold, Nelson may very well have never seen the field again.
But a funny thing happened on the road to the Heisman: Heaps struggled. And not just the sort of sophomore slump that bites a few highly-touted quarterbacks, but the sort of struggles that lead a coaching staff to question whether their future star is either a star or a significant part of the program’s future. Credit should go to Bronco Mendenhall for having the intestinal fortitude to make the move back to Nelson, knowing that drastic measures might lead to a permanently-damaged sophomore quarterback.
Nelson didn’t just handle the offense; he took it to another level. And he showed a flair for the dramatic, leading the Cougars to a last-second win over Utah State as Heaps’ replacement and winning six of his seven starts to end the season. That Nelson showed an ability to lead the Cougars’ offense was vital for three key reasons:
1. The quarterback position is no longer a concern in 2012. Let’s say Mendenhall sticks with Heaps, and the sophomore continues to struggle completing against adequate competition. What does that say about the offense this fall? There’d be hopes that Heaps’ light would turn on, but no numbers — or game film — to truly prove that point. Now, with Nelson back for his senior season, a position of concern becomes one of strength.
2. The Heaps melodrama is over. Heaps transferred after the end of the season, eventually heading to Charlie Weis and Kansas; for now, he’s projected to be the Jayhawks’ starter in 2013. But after that transfer was complete, reports began to surface that Heaps’ relationship with Mendenhall’s offensive assistants had deteriorated to the point where, quite simply, there was no relationship at all. Being able to bid the former five star goodbye was made easier by Nelson’s solid season.
3. The offense now has an identity. This isn’t a B.Y.U. offense of old, with a strong, accurate quarterback slinging the ball out of multiple-receiver sets. But the offense is still very much quarterback-centric, merely in a different fashion. On the vast majority of snaps, the offense goes directly through Nelson; whether passing or tucking it down outside the pocket, Nelson is the lifeblood of B.Y.U.’s offensive attack. He needs help in the running game, but the Cougars trust Nelson to make the right decision — and he often does.
Season grade: B+ The bottom line: 10 wins. That was the program’s baseline for success in 2011, its first year as an Independent, and B.Y.U. was able to get there with a strong close to the season. But it wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t all that impressive. The Cougars notched only one win in the regular season, against Utah State, over a team that reached bowl play. In all, the Cougars went 2-3 against bowl teams; that includes the Armed Forces Bowl win over Tulsa. Four of B.Y.U.’s wins came against F.B.S. opponents that won four games or less in the regular season. A fifth came against Idaho State. Pretty? Not quite. But here’s the deal: B.Y.U. wants to win 10 games every year. Eventually, as the program finds its footing as an Independent, how the Cougars go about getting those 10 wins – beating good teams would be nice – will become more important than the end result. When it comes to 2012, double-digit wins was good enough.
High point A 24-21 win over Tulsa in bowl play. B.Y.U.’s best win on the year, it was sealed by Nelson’s late fake-spike-pass to Cody Hoffman, who scored each of the Cougars’ three touchdowns.
Low point A very sour start. A 14-13 win over Mississippi – that looked worse and worse as the year wore on – came about despite a 13-0 fourth quarter deficit; the Cougars only won after recovering a fumble in the end zone with five minutes left. That narrow win was followed by an ugly loss at Texas and, worst of all, a 54-10 loss to Utah, at home, in the Holy War. To find a more one-sided B.Y.U. loss in the bitter series you need to go back to… 1922, when the Utes and Cougars met for the first time.
Offensive M.V.P. It’s Nelson, who did two things Heap could not: protect the football and extend plays with his feet. Both of those factors gave B.Y.U. a different dimension on offense. In particular, Nelson’s running ability gave the Cougars’ ground game another option to balance out a fairly pedestrian performance by the B.Y.U. running backs. On the year, and despite playing all 60 minutes in only six games, Nelson threw for 1,717 yards and 19 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. He cracked the 200-yard mark in all six of his starts, led by a season-high 363 yards in a win over Hawaii to end the regular season. He added another 392 yards on the ground, including a five-game stretch where he averaged 72 rushing yards per game.
Defensive M.V.P. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that B.Y.U.’s statistical climb on defense over the second half of 2010 came when then-freshman Kyle Van Noy broke into the starting lineup due to injury. After playing well as a rookie, Van Noy was one part of a talented linebacker corps in 2011, joining Brandon Ogletree and former U.S.C. transfer Uona Kaveinga. On the year, Van Noy led B.Y.U. in tackles for loss (15.0) and sacks (6.0), picking up the slack when Jordan Pendleton was lost to injury. Van Noy also showed a penchant for the big play, as evidenced by his key fumble recovery in the win at Mississippi.
Stock watch Perhaps someone – and I’m not naming names – had B.Y.U. a tad high in his preseason rankings. And perhaps someone – again, no names – thought that Heaps had what it took to become one of the best non-B.C.S. conference quarterbacks in the country. So what did 2011 prove? That B.Y.U. wasn’t quite that good, and neither was Heaps. But with the changes that took place over the span of the regular season, it’s clear that the Cougars have what it takes to taste annual success as a Notre Dame-like Independent. One issue that will arise this fall is a tougher schedule, one that will provide sterner tests over the final two months of the season. But the team itself will be stronger, which will help the Cougars again hover around the 10-win mark.
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