The Utah State transfer, and Logan native, came off the bench to lead an improbable 96-yard drive in the waning minutes and rallied the Cougars from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit. In the end, BYU earned a dramatic 27-24 win over the Aggies Friday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The game-winning TD came with 11 seconds remaining, when tight end Marcus Mathews caught a 13-yard tipped pass in the end zone.
Displaying fire and intensity that was missing from BYU for most of the game, Nelson willed his team to victory with gutty running and passing, and prevented back-to-back losses to Utah State.
"It was really good to come back and get the win," Nelson said. "It was a hard-fought win against a great opponent. To be able to come back like that was special for our whole team."
The listless Cougars (3-2) played like a different team once Nelson entered the game in the third quarter, replacing an ineffective Jake Heaps.
"In the second half, we changed as a team. We played with more heart," said wide receiver McKay Jacobson, who hauled in a 40-yard pass from Nelson on the game-winning drive. "I think that was the change. We just were putting some things together and making some drives and all of us were playing with more heart out there."
With 2:46 remaining in the game, BYU trailed 24-20 when it took over on its own 4-yard line after a 67-yard USU punt. On first down, Nelson lost two yards, giving the Cougars second-and-12 on their own 2-yard line — 98 yards from the end zone.
"You've got to get into the end zone," Nelson said. "I've had the opportunity to be in situations like that before."
Though the offense had sputtered for much of the game, the Cougars were confident.
"It's definitely tough to go the length of the field with two minutes left. We could tell the momentum was on our side," Jacobson said. "We were going to fight until the end and I think we all had a good feeling that something special was going to happen."
On the sidelines, BYU players and coaches knew Nelson could get the job done.
"(Linebacker Brandon) Ogletree came up to me and he said, 'Do you remember the spring game?' I believe in Riley Nelson,'" said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "And he was smiling. It mattered to me that he would believe in his teammate so much that he would come to me and say that."
Ogletree was referring to Nelson's game-winning drive in the spring game last April.
"I believe in him. The guy's one of the hardest workers that I know," Ogletree said. "He's gritty and he's tough. He's had a tough road and he stayed with it and it's inspiring. You saw the way the team rallied around him."
On the final drive, Nelson took control, completing 4-of-5 passes for 66 yards and running for 30 more.
"Riley realized it was his opportunity and he ran with it," Mendenhall said. "He is someone I admire for just the natural competitive mindset that he has. He won't sit on the sideline pouting, but he'll be out there on the field helping our team. He has a very unselfish mindset about him."
Mendenhall called the game an "epic struggle" and praised Utah State's program and coach Gary Andersen.
Nelson said he didn't feel any vindication in beating his former team.
"I love Utah State. I have a lot of respect for the program. I love those guys," Nelson said, adding that his longtime connection to the program. His younger brother, D.J., a quarterback at Logan High, committed to Utah State this past week.
The snakebitten Aggies (1-3) have now lost three games in which they led in the fourth quarter.
"They should have been 3-0 coming into this game," Nelson said. "They played well enough to be 4-0. But the ball bounced our way."
Nelson came into the game for Heaps midway through the third quarter. His first drive resulted in a missed field goal, but on the ensuing series, he threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Cody Hoffman to pull the Cougars to within 24-20 with 10:05 remaining in the game.
After BYU's defense stopped a fake field goal in Cougar territory, Nelson led another impressive drive that ended on a fumble by running back J.J. Di Luigi.
In the end, Nelson got one more chance and he provided late-game heroics — one of the most memorable drives in Edwards Stadium history.
And a former Aggie led them.
Andersen praised Nelson for his play.
"Riley did a nice job," he said. "He came in and made some plays with his feet. It's very different defending him. It's a QB run game and the opportunity to create the matchups you want in the passing game go out the window because you can't empty the box like we had been the whole game. But obviously tonight they were a better football team."