PROVO, Utah — Riley Nelson split time as Brigham Young’s starting quarterback until a season-ending shoulder injury last year. The experience helped him stay calm and lead the Cougars to another win against Utah State.
Nelson relieved starter Jake Heaps in the third quarter and helped spark a sluggish BYU offense, capping a 96-yard drive with a deflected touchdown pass to Marcus Mathews with 11 seconds to play that gave the Cougars a 27-24 victory over the Aggies on Friday night.
Nelson led BYU (3-2) on a pair of fourth quarter scoring drives to rally his team from a 24-13 deficit and give the Cougars their 21st victory in the past 23 meetings against Utah State.
“You’re the backup quarterback,” Nelson said. “Not much is expected of you. If you go in there and don’t play too well, that’s kind of what people expect. If you go in there and play great, all of a sudden you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
Pinned by a 67-yard punt by Tyler Bennett on their 4-yard line with 2:26 to play, Nelson was 4 of 5 for 66 yards on the final drive, including a 40-yard pass to wide receiver McKay Jacobson to the Utah State 26 and the winning pass from the 13. Nelson also ran four times for 30 yards during the drive.
Utah State safety Will Harris tipped Nelson’s final pass near the goal line, and it landed in Mathews’ hands as he crossed the middle of the end zone.
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall credited the switch at quarterback with throwing off Utah State on the defensive end.
“It takes some time to adjust,” Mendenhall said. “While you are adjusting, the chains are moving and there are first downs being had and you’re not quite as settled because it really hasn’t been what you’ve prepared most for during the week.”
Nelson completed 10 of 14 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 62 yards on 11 carries. Heaps was 11 of 25 passing for 107 yards.
Utah State (1-3) again lost a late lead as it did against Auburn and Colorado State. The Aggies took a 21-13 lead on their opening possession of the second half when running back Robert Turbin caught a screen pass from freshman quarterback Chuckie Keeton and rumbled 24 yards for his second touchdown.
Keeton was 12 of 24 for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Turbin rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries, including an 80-yard run on the game’s opening play.
The Cougars rallied to take a 10-7 lead on a 23-yard field goal by Justin Sorensen and 1-yard keeper by Heaps with 1:47 left in the first quarter.
Keeton threw a 13-yard pass to wideout Eric Moats to put the Aggies up 14-10 with 4:02 left in the half.