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PROVO -- Six games into the season and the BYU football team is still working out some kinks. The Cougars are zeroing in on which playmakers are really going to be the difference makers throughout the season.
Junior quarterback Riley Nelson has been a difference maker ever since he stepped on to the field to replace sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps in the middle of the Utah State game last week. First he led the Cougars to a stunning come-from-behind victory over the Aggies. Then he got the Cougars off to a hot start versus San Jose State and helped his team hold on for victory.
"With Riley being the starter, and the game really being as it is and to go from start to finish is really good experience and necessary experience," said head coach Bronco Mendenhall. "Riley hasn't played that much this year, those repetitions are valuable repetitions and all those game management situations are critical."
Nelson was inconsistent, indicative of his lack of playing time, but was effective enough to get BYU the win. Nelson started the game connecting on eight of his first nine passes and threw three touchdowns. The game looked like it was heading towards a blowout. Then Nelson struggled, completing only six of his final 15 passes and threw two interceptions. The game got uncomfortably close in the second half, but Nelson and the running game pounded out a win.
Not many BYU fans would have predicted that by the sixth game of the season Nelson would get the start over Heaps, but players like sophomore running back Mike Alisa wasn't even talked about until Saturday night.
"We've been looking for a running back that would run over, through, slash, fall forward, get positive yards, and [Alisa's] been doing that in practice," said Mendenhall. "The last two weeks he's really started to gain our attention as the need has started to become apparent."
The Timpview grad was rewarded for his hard work with 16 carries; seven more carries than the next running back. The coaching staff was rewarded with a consistent, smash-mouth effort and 91 hard-fought yards.
"Mike Alisa's a very hard worker. He's a great athlete, and a guy that plays with a lot of passion and a lot of heart," said Nelson. "Going forward I think he can help our offense and contribute to the foundation that Juice, J.J., and Bryan have already built."
Alisa's average of 5.7 yards per carry is the most any running back has averaged for BYU this season when carrying the ball more than once.
"All my credit goes to the O-line. I think they did an excellent job up front making huge holes," said Alisa. "Honestly, I feel like our running back core is a really talented group, we have a ton of athletes. I feel like tonight could have been anyone's night."
Along with Alisa getting more plays, sophomore running back Josh Quezada was incorporated more into the system because of his running style getting 47 yards on nine carries. Quezada has 28 carries in the last three games for 114 yards compared to 14 carries for 28 yards in the first three contests.
"We need to develop a point that can actually go through an opponent. Both Mike and Juice are that type of player," said Mendenhall. "When you add that combination with Riley, and the play-action part of it, that's a nice combination."
Nelson averaged over seven yards a carry, netting 65 yards on nine carries, providing a change of pace aspect that kept Spartans on their toes all night.
BYU football hasn't exactly come into their element quite yet, but they continue to make progress with finding and playing difference makers and playmakers they didn't quite know they had.
"Still growing, still maturing, and a work in progress. We have not reached our potential yet," said Mendenhall on the current state of his team. "And there is so much more that this team I believe is capable of in terms of playing great football from the first quarter to the fourth quarter."