By Danny Holmgren
The atmosphere at Lavell Edwards Stadium was awesome on Saturday as the Cougars welcomed #10 Oregon State to Provo. BYU, for the first time, threw a “black out” with stunning black uniforms and helmets with royal blue trim. For two weeks fans were encouraged to wear black to the game and for the most part they got the message. Fans and players all appeared to have an extra bounce in their step, and as the team warmed up on the black field there was a feeling that this was going to be a great game.
Oregon State was led by backup quarterback, Cody Vaz, who was starting his first game since high school. Vaz looked like anything but a backup quarterback, leading the Beavers to a 42-24 victory with a nearly flawless passing performance, torching the Cougar secondary for 332 yards and three touchdowns. The BYU defense, which had been touted as one of the top defenses in the nation this season, was humbled. Vaz benefited from throwing to arguably the best receiving duo in the nation in Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks. His offensive line gave him time to sit comfortably in the pocket, read the holes in the defense, and deliver the ball on target. Cooks led all receivers with 8 catches for 173 yards. Wheaton added 5 catches for 66 yards with two of them going for touchdowns at key moments for the Beavers.
Yet for three quarters BYU held pace with the Beavers. The Cougars entered the 4th quarter tied 21-21 and the abysmal offensive sterility witnessed against USU and Boise State appeared to have been improved upon. Riley Nelson eclipsed the 300 yard passing mark for the first time this season and the offense seemed to have the firepower (albeit sporadic firepower) we had been waiting for all season. But a Cody Vaz touchdown pass on the second play of the 4th quarter made the score 28-21. Riley threw three interceptions, including a poor throw intended for Ross Apo that was returned by Jordan Poyer for a 49 yard touchdown in the 4th quarter that put the game out of reach for the Cougs.
Having been a bit of Doman critic throughout this season, I’m willing to concede some ground to him this morning. This quarterback conundrum that he’s dealt with the last 2 1/2 seasons with Jake Heaps, Nelson, and Taysom Hill has made it difficult to implement a well executed offensive strategy. Nelson just isn’t the guy. You have to admire his leadership. You have to respect his grit and determination. You want the kid to succeed. I watched his post-game interview and I found myself wanting so badly for him to be the guy. But there are severe flaws in his game that stem from below-average arm strength and an inability to read defensive secondary coverages. Those flaws have really given Doman a tough task.
I go back to 2005 when I sat at Rice Eccles Stadium to watch the Utah 3A State Championship game between Logan High and Pine View High School. Riley Nelson (Logan) and James Lark (Pine View) squared off for the first and only time as the state’s dominant quarterbacks. Don’t be fooled by the “3A” designation of this matchup, this game was really the matchup of the two best teams in the state that year. I love high school football and had followed these two senior quarterbacks all season. Having them play each other in the championship was the matchup you dream of. I had no tie to either school, so I went to the game just to get a glimpse of these two players.
Nelson had put on a statistical clinic throughout the season, accounting for nearly 6,000 all purpose yards and accounting for 83 touchdowns. To clarify, those stats aren’t for his career. That’s what he did in his senior year, a year which earned him both All-State and All-American recognition. He beat people with his arm and he beat them with his legs. But as I sat in the stadium that day watching Nelson and Logan High punish Pine View, I couldn’t help but think that I while I was watching the best high school quarterback I’d ever seen, he not even the best future college quarterback in the stadium. That designation belonged to James Lark. I felt there was a reason that Lark was the top QB recruit of BYU that year and that Nelson hadn’t even been looked at by BYU.
Lark had the size, arm strength, and pocket presence that I felt would translate to success at the next level. Nelson ended up going to Utah State for a season before transferring to BYU while on his mission. Bronco Mendenhall, always known for his love of tough, gritty players, has always loved Riley. The kid plays his guts out and makes up for lack of raw talent with creativity, flexibility, and athleticism. That, coupled with his leadership abilities, have made him a favorite in the locker room.
The limitations of Nelson have been seen this season and were on display at LES on Saturday. Much of the running that Riley does takes place on designed pass plays, plays designed to utilize the skills of Cody Hoffman, Ross Apo, and J.D. Falslev. Instead of throwing the ball to these targets, Riley often improvises by tucking the ball and running. I can almost picture Doman standing on the sideline throwing his arms in the air and yelling “throw the damn ball!” as he watches Nelson tuck the ball away yet again. The offensive play calling is obviously limited to begin with due to Nelson’s size, arm strength, and inability to check down in his progressions. But when even those plays aren’t run as scripted, Doman can’t help but be frustrated.
While I don’t think that Doman has excelled a year and a half into his run as offensive coordinator, I’m not ready to call for his head yet. At season’s end we can hopefully be done with this quarterback debacle and return to the downfield passing and offensive prowess we saw with Max Hall, John Beck, and the countless legends who played before them.