Sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps will return to Brigham Young’s starting lineup for the first time in seven weeks when the Cougars (7-3) host New Mexico State (4-6) on Saturday.
Heaps will start in place of injured Riley Nelson, who left last week’s victory over Idaho in the first quarter with two broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung. Heaps was benched during the second half of BYU’s game against Utah State on Sept. 30 as the offense struggled for a fourth straight game.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Heaps said of sitting. “It was a chance for me to refine my game and how I approach it.”
Heaps came off the bench last week to complete 15 of 20 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns in the Cougars’ 42-7 win over the Vandals.
“I’ve been working hard every day in practice preparing as if I was the starter no matter what the circumstances were,” he said. “I feel comfortable with where I am at right now.”
Ironically, it was an injury to Nelson last season that moved Heaps into the starting role as a true freshman, a rare opportunity at BYU. Heaps led the Cougars to wins in five of their final six games.
The success sent his expectations, and those of Cougars fans, soaring for 2011. But after BYU’s sluggish 2-2 start, coach Bronco Mendenhall replaced Heaps with Nelson, and the Cougars responded by winning five of six.
Being benched might have rebooted Heaps’ career.
“I think just the perspective he has been able to glean to step back and be out of the ‘BYU quarterback’ mode for a minute or two, I think that might have contributed to it,” Mendenhall said.
Heaps returns to a much different offense.
During his first four starts this season, BYU averaged just 68 yards rushing with two touchdowns on the ground. The Cougars’ inability to run the ball limited Heaps’ opportunities to pass.
BYU now averages 168 yards rushing and has 13 touchdowns rushing.
“I think everybody has learned a lot through the season,” Heaps said. “This has been an experience I won’t forget.”
Heaps will take aim against a New Mexico State defense that has allowed an average of 557 yards of offense and 50 points in its past four games.
“Our pass game has been with us lately,” sophomore wide receiver Cody Hoffman said. “Hopefully that opens up the running game and gives us a balanced attack.”
The game will be televised at 7:15 p.m. PST on ESPNU (320) and broadcast on KSHP Radio (1400 AM).
■ ONE TOUGH GUY — After suffering the two broken ribs and a collapsed lung against Idaho, Nelson stayed on the field for five more plays, including one in which he threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Hoffman.
Nelson will be out at least until Dec. 3 at Hawaii. But because of the nature of his lung injury, he could be kept from flying to Honolulu.
“He might be able to play, but not make the trip because of the pressurization in the air cabin as he’s flying,” Mendenhall said.
■ SENIOR NIGHT — Nineteen seniors will be playing their final game at LaVell Edwards Stadium, including starting running back JJ Di Luigi, receiver McKay Jacobsen, offensive tackle Matt Reynolds and defensive tackle Hebron Fangupo.
“To have so many that have made it through the program from beginning to end, that means a lot to me in terms of retention and identifying the right kids on the front end,” Mendenhall said.
Senior offensive lineman Marco Thorson said the time goes by quickly.
“In years past, my heart has gone out to the seniors as they leave. I don’t know what I will think when it is me,” he said.
■ BIG EAST INVITATION — Mendenhall weighed in on the discussion of BYU possibly joining the Big East Conference in football only.
He noted that of BYU’s 12 games this season, 10 will have been shown on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU and, as an independent, BYU keeps all of its TV revenue.
“The amount of television coverage we have received this year is so strong. It would have to be a great conference package to make sense,” Mendenhall said.
Dave McCann is a morning news anchor on KLAS-TV (Channel 8). He hosts “True Blue” at 5 p.m. Monday on BYUtv, is the play-by-play voice for BYUtv and hosts “Cougar Countdown” at noon Wednesday on KSHP Radio (1400 AM) and Sirius XM 143 BYUradio. He can be reached at email@example.com.