QB battle brews as BYU prepares for San Jose State
Riley Nelson is the ''gritty dude'' with the great hair not afraid to knock heads on special teams for BYU.
But is he the quarterback to lead the Cougars (3-2) through the rest of the season, starting Saturday night against San Jose State?
Nelson isn't saying and BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall won't reveal his starter until game time.
The choice, however, has created as much controversy in Provo as Nelson's hair.
It could be seen flowing freely as he celebrated his 96-yard game-winning drive last week against Utah State after replacing the benched Jake Heaps, and again in a YouTube video tribute set to Whitney Houston's climactic ''I Will Always Love You.''
Get it cut, school officials quietly urged, and by Tuesday Nelson had done so, even issuing an apology for being a ''dumb, lazy college student.''
Short hair or long, Nelson has his teammates' respect.
''He brings a lot of great things to our team because of his mentality, his competitiveness, his grit when he plays,'' BYU safety Travis Uale said. ''You see him on special teams, just trying to do everything he can no matter what it is.''
Down 10-3 in the third quarter against Central Florida, BYU ran a fake-punt option with Nelson pitching to David Foote for a 21-yard gain. He also has been the ''gunner'' on BYU's punt return team, and jumped over a defender to get a first down last week.
Mendenhall said it's that do-everything style that prompted some teammates to suggest they played harder for Nelson than Heaps last week.
''I wouldn't read too much into that,'' the coach said.
Still, Mendenhall knows he must choose wisely, even if BYU is a two-touchdown favorite against the Spartans (2-3, 1-1 WAC).
While he didn't rule out starting one quarterback and switching to another to provide a spark, Mendenhall said he doesn't plan to rotate quarterbacks.
He acknowledged it could be positive for Heaps, only a sophomore, to sit and watch for a while as he did the first four games as a freshman.
''It's a lot to live in this community as BYU's quarterback,'' Mendenhall said of a history that includes Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer. ''Certainly being able to step back and take a breather and regroup'' might be helpful.
Nelson may not have the arm strength of Heaps, but he is more of a threat to run, and won't shy away from contact.
''Riley is someone who's been told he can't do things all his life,'' Mendenhall said. ''Either he is too short or not a typical quarterback or many other things. ... 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 a quarterback.''
As a team, BYU has had to play with a similar edge.
With the exception of a lopsided loss to Utah, every game has gone down to the wire.
''Nothing has come easy yet,'' Mendenhall said. ''I'm not sure it will for this particular team.''
San Jose State has had its own crazy season.
The Spartans snapped a 13-game losing streak with a 10-point win over New Mexico State on Sept. 24. A week later, Matt Faulkner's TD pass with 54 seconds left gave the Spartans a 38-31 victory at Colorado State, ending a string of 16 consecutive road losses and 18 consecutive nonconference road losses.
''In our own little world, it's big,'' said San Jose State coach Mike MacIntyre. ''I'd say 80 percent of our football team had never won a road game or won back-to-back. When you start to believe you can win, things start to fall your way.''
It would help if MacIntyre has running back Brandon Rutley available. He rushed for 131 yards last week before spraining his ankle in the third quarter. He could be a game-time decision.
BYU knows it must stop the run, something it struggled to do against Utah State, allowing 284 yards on the ground in the 27-24 win.
Staying awake might be just as difficult as the game doesn't figure to end much before midnight in Provo - another part of playing an independent schedule.
''Monday night, Thursday night, Friday at 5 a.m. Whatever time they say we're playing, we're gonna play,'' BYU center Terence Brown said.