If there was still any doubt that Riley Nelson is the right man to quarterback BYU, he answered the skeptics Friday by breaking out his best Dan Marino impression on the Cougars' final play of the Armed Forces Bowl.
Trailing Tulsa 21-17 with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter, Nelson hurried the offense up to the line to stop the clock by spiking the ball after completing a pass to the Tulsa 2-yard line. Instead, he took a quick survey of the Golden Hurricane defense, called a "Red Alert" audible, faked the spike and found a wide-open Cody Hoffman in the front corner of the end zone with 11 seconds to play. Nelson's clever call caught Tulsa flat-footed, and Hoffman's third touchdown catch of the game sealed a 24-21 win for the Cougars.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged after the game that the call for the spike did not come from the sideline. So if it didn't work, Nelson could have just as easily been the goat instead of the hero.
"We called him to spike it," Mendenhall said. "There is a play that we have, 'Red Alert,' that he called on his own, which is fake-spike it, then throw a touchdown — or he better throw a touchdown, put it that way. He did that completely on his own.
"I do believe in the freedom of players, and I trust them to do what they think is right to help our team win… [I] believe that they're prepared well enough to take chances and they better be right when they take them. I don't want them to play scared. So to have a quarterback in that situation fake-spike it on his own, throw a touchdown, be on the same page with the receiver, that's kind of the magic of the guys I get to coach."
Nelson's clever move was eerily reminiscent of Marino's infamous fake spike to lift the Miami Dolphins past the New York Jets in 1994 — Hoffman's catch even came in the same spot in the end zone as Mark Ingram's game-winning grab 17 years ago.
With that play, the Cougars clinched their fifth 10-win season in the past six years, and Nelson brought his season full-circle: On Sept. 30, with then-starter Jake Heaps struggling and BYU trailing Utah State in the fourth quarter, Nelson came off the bench to throw two late touchdowns, the second one an improbable game-winner to Marcus Mathews with (you guessed it) 11 seconds remaining on the clock. He's been the starter ever since.
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