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Monson: BYU's Bronco Mendenhall just can't quit Riley Nelson

Published October 1, 2012 11:37 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Provo

Mutually beneficial was Friday night's 47-0 mismatch of BYU and Hawaii at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Norm Chow and the Warriors, transitioning as they are in the coach's first year at the wheel, went ahead and played their role as crash dummies for a Cougar team that needed exactly that. Hawaii absorbed the force of its blunt object lesson — and BYU got two things: 1) a stress-free opportunity to move from an offense quarterbacked by senior Riley Nelson to one led by freshman Taysom Hill, and 2) a chance to feel better about itself after losing in consecutive weeks to more legitimate opponents Utah and Boise State.

But also mixed in that good feeling was a conundrum, stirred by way of easy victory. One Bronco Mendenhall has to handle deftly, but he won't. He's too blinded by love.

First, the run-up.

Having coached in Provo for nearly three decades, and, more to the point, having closely studied his own players, leftovers from a previous — and ousted — coaching staff, Chow knew what was coming here. He might not have known the particulars of how his team would lose, but knew he that it would.

The Warriors have been crushed in three of four games now. They're learning, one would suppose, that losing blows and that winning — they did beat Lamar — is better. BYU is well aware. With an offense that had scored all of six points last week and just 21 the week before, the Cougars were happy to heal up and pile on.

"Our team took some steps forward," Mendenhall said.

Against silly-soft resistance.

Beyond basking in the win, BYU's third victory over a bad team, the nuances of the game gave what happened here real meaning. The quarterback do-si-do, especially, has its intrigue. Nelson's acquiescence to a back injury he had tried to ignore in previous losses gave Hill his opening, and the first-year player flew through it.

He accounted for 255 yards, 112 passing and 143 rushing, and three touchdowns, including a 68-yard nitro-fueled burst of a scoring run. He said: "I was happy with the way I played. … I felt comfortable. I felt confident."

Hill had jumpy moments — an interception that aborted a drive and missing open receivers while his happy feet jackhammered around — but, all told, the kid is a nice athlete. A better athlete than any other BYU quarterback.

The celebration of that performance, though, was countered by the aforementioned conundrum. With Mendenhall's ongoing love affair with Nelson — he's tough, he's tougher than all of us, he's a fighter, he never quits, he's everything I would want in an adopted son … OK, Bronco never actually said that last one — it would be compelling to see what happens next — if Mendenhall pried open his heart.

With two losses already absorbed and the Poinsettia Bowl a sure prize — or prison sentence — will the coach turn the page on his senior, putting aside the good of one individual for the good of a team, and move toward the future with the freshman as his starter?

No. That would kill Mendenhall.

It's what he should do, considering that the Cougars are likely to beat the remaining gimmes on their schedule and lose to most of the toughies on the road, no matter who's playing. If there's not a positive difference between Nelson and Hill, and Hill's time on the field prepares BYU for that brutal schedule in 2013, and schedules beyond, a bold call is the right call for Mendenhall.

But he simply won't do it.

Asked afterward who his starter would be next week, Mendenhall immediately said: "Riley Nelson."

At the same time, he said the only remedy for Nelson's ailing back is rest and that playing him makes it worse.

Mendenhall's emotion for Riley runs too deep, as does the cultural code at BYU, laid down by the head coach, dictating that veterans, particularly vets who have scrapped from the bottom up, get preferential treatment.

Nelson is the poster child for that.

Hill is just a newcomer.

"Taysom is doing his part," Mendenhall said, "but there isn't as much history between he and I like there is between Riley and I."

It's as though the arrogance of Jake Heaps casts its shadow still on every fresh face, none of which is to be fully trusted by the team until he's worked through the lower ranks, paying his dues. Freshman running back Jamaal Williams, who gained 155 yards Friday night, got his chance mostly because Mike Alisa broke his arm.

Bottom line: Sometimes talent, especially at quarterback, has to trump passion and protocol.

This is one of those times.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.