After senior starting quarterback Riley Nelson was pulled from last night’s game against Boise State, freshman Taysom Hill led the team to its only score, starting talk that BYU could be embroiled in yet another quarterback controversy.
It was barely a year ago that Nelson came off the bench and sparked an offense that had floundered under top recruit Jake Heaps. Nelson’s leadership and drive trumped Heaps’ considerable physical skills; Nelson became the starter and Heaps ultimately transferred to Kansas.
Last night, it seemed like the Cougars were back in the same position, only with Hill as the upstart backup making his case to be the No. 1 QB.
Nelson was just 4 of 9 for 19 yards in three quarters against the Broncos, with a fumble and three interceptions. His second interception was returned 33 yards for Boise State’s only score of the game.
Hill, who was promoted to second-string earlier this week, took over with just eight minutes left and went 3 for 5 on the final scoring drive, with the team’s only touchdown of the night. He also had a team-high 72 rushing yards on 12 carries.
To those who watched the pitiful offensive performances from both teams, the only controversy was why BYU waited so long to get Hill in the game.
In 2011, the Cougars’ coaching staff was criticized after waiting until the fifth game to try Nelson in place of Heaps. Once they finally made the move, Nelson led the team on a 96-yard game-winning drive and, as a starter, finished the season with a 7-1 record.
Even then, Nelson was considered “a short term answer to an ongoing problem,” according to The Deseret News. He was an undersized backup, but what he lacked in arm strength, he made up for with spirit and heart.
After Hill’s showing against Boise State, many are calling for him to get the nod over Nelson, but the situation isn’t quite the same as it was a year ago, and making a permanent change at quarterback now might not have the same result as it did last time.
When Nelson took over for Heaps last year, he already had experience at the college level. He started his career at Utah State, where he was the starter in 2006 before serving an LDS mission. When he returned and transferred to BYU, Nelson backed up Max Hall for a year and then won the starting role outright, but was sidelined by injury after three games.
Hill is certainly talented – BYU fan site CougarNation.com called him a “bigger, faster version of Riley Nelson” – but until this week, he was the third-string situational quarterback that the coaches planned to use during garbage time so he’d get experience for the future.
While rumblings that “the future is now” have begun in Provo, BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall says there’s no quarterback controversy.
“Riley is our quarterback,” he said after the game.
That’s not to say Hill won’t get his shot.
Nelson injured his back two weeks ago against Weber State and continues to insist he’s fine, but that might not be the case. The team has dropped both games since his injury, even though the BYU defense has held opponents to fewer than 300 yards in each game.
The senior’s performance against Boise State, especially, suggests that his back might be affecting him more than he’s willing to admit. Hill’s ability to come into the game on Thursday night and play better than Nelson did might give the coaching staff more confidence that he can handle the offense while Nelson heals.
“I want [Nelson] to be healthy. I want him to be able to look me in the eye and tell me ‘Coach, I am absolutely ready,'” Mendenhall said.
Nelson will say that, no matter what, but until he proves it to Mendenhall and to the Cougar faithful, there’ll be a quarterback controversy in Provo.