JD Falslev was a star at Sky View High in Smithfield, Cache County, in the heart of Utah State territory. He opted to walk on and play football at rival BYU in Provo. At barely 5 feet, 8 inches tall, the humble but tenacious competitor never imagined being the big man on campus.
But on Oct. 5, 2012, he was.
Freshman quarterback Taysom Hill, playing for the injured Riley Nelson, connected on three straight passes to Cody Hoffman to bring BYU to the Utah State three-yard line with nine seconds remaining in the second quarter.
“My family still lives in Cache Valley. They are prideful of what Utah State does and how they represent the valley. To score against them was a lot of fun. I wanted to win that game.” — JD Falslev
“Going into the game we knew their defense was so stout and hadn’t given up many points,” Falslev said. “We knew we had to play a clean football game.”
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman had just the play call.
The San Francisco 49ers selected Doman in the fifth round of the 2002 NFL draft following his dynamic 12-2 season as BYU’s quarterback in 2021. While in San Francisco, he learned about a play the 49ers called “Winston.”
“It’s just an inside stick route and a back of the end zone dig,” said Doman, who was BYU’s offensive coordinator in 2011 and 2012. “It was in every one of our weekly game plans when I was with San Francisco and it’s still in the game plan for half of the NFL teams each weekend. It works against anybody.”
With such tight quarters to defend, Utah State lined up in a goal line zone defense. Hoffman set up on the outside, with Falslev as the slot receiver on the inside — both were to Hill’s left.
Hoffman, with his 6-4, 210-pound frame, was known for catching touchdowns and finished his BYU career with the school record (33). Falslev played with a much different body and garnered a fraction of the attention Hoffman received. But he found a way to impact the game.
“He might have been one of my favorite players to coach out of all of them because of his grit, his love for the game and his enthusiasm for life,” Doman said. “He had everything going against him from his size and walk-on status and he overcame the odds in almost every way. JD had such quick feet and was such a reliable receiver.”
Staring into the south end zone at LaVell Edwards Stadium with the student section ready to explode, Hill took the shotgun snap and saw the defenders fall off Falslev to try and contain Hoffman.
“I knew I had to run at least a yard into the end zone because the play isn’t meant for yards after the catch,” Falslev said. “Taysom threw a great ball; I ran a great route and Cody (Hoffman) did a nice job getting the defenders’ attention.”
To Doman’s credit, the “Winston” had worked again.
Hill’s pass to Falslev, his roommate, was the game’s only touchdown. BYU held on for a 6-3 victory. The outcome remains the lowest scoring game in the last 68 meetings — dating back to a 0-0 tie in 1946.
“My family still lives in Cache Valley. They are prideful of what Utah State does and how they represent the valley,” Falslev said. “To score against them was a lot of fun. I wanted to win that game.”
Punter vs. punt returner
As a utility man at Sky View, Falslev did just about everything, including the punting duties. During BYU’s 2010 road game at Nevada, special teams coach Paul Tidwell decided to give him a shot at the Division I level.
“It was a moment of humility. It was one that I should have been more mentally prepared for,” Falslev said. “I wanted to see how far I could kick it. I wanted to kick the crap out of that ball.”
Falslev took the snap and stepped into the kick. In his excitement, however, he missed the ball with his foot and instead, kicked it mostly with his shin. It sailed quickly to the right for a net gain of two yards. Tidwell was waiting for him on the sideline.
“He said, ‘Well, that didn’t work. I don’t think we’ll be trying that again,’” Falslev remembered. “I said, ’C’mon coach. Give me one more chance.’”
There would be no more chances. His punting days were over.
As for a punt returner, Falslev’s quick and shifty field demeanor fit the mold perfectly. He returned 89 punts at BYU, including a 67-yard touchdown burst against TCU in 2009 in Dallas Cowboys Stadium. But not all of his memory makers were positive, including a key moment in the 2011 rivalry game against Utah State.
With 2:49 remaining, Falslev waited for Tyler Bennett’s punt at BYU’s own 23-yard line.
“The ball came off the punter’s foot a bit awkwardly and I misread it. I took my eye off the ball to get everybody away from it and when I looked up, the ball whistled right past my helmet, way too close,” he said. “I should have kept my eye on it and fair caught it.”
Instead of starting the game-winning drive at the 32, Bennett’s 67-yard punt pinned BYU back at the four-yard line. Nelson took it from there, marching the Cougars 96 yards, and capping the drive with a touchdown pass to Marcus Mathews with 11 seconds to win the game, 27-24.
Nelson, another Logan product, bailed out his northern Utah compadre, something Falslev had done a number of times for his quarterback.
“JD was the escape valve for the offense in that he took pressure off of everyone else,” said Nelson, who is an analyst for the BYU Sports Network radio broadcasts. “He was so dependable and consistent. He was important to our team at large. He brought passion to everything he did.”
In all, Falslev’s BYU career included 22 rushes, 102 receptions, 23 kickoff returns, 89 punt returns, one punt, six tackles and he was the holder on field goals and extra points.
“I wasn’t quite the Swiss Army knife that Taysom was, but I was somewhat of a utility guy,” Falslev said. “I prided myself in being a guy a coach can rely on when a play needs to be made.”
Thursday’s game marks the 91st meeting between BYU and Utah State (6 p.m MDT, ESPN) and the last for at least a while as the Cougars join the Big 12. The Cougars are 24-point favorites, but Falslev knows that in this rivalry, nothing can be taken for granted.
“The players will be ready to go,” he said. “Underdogs don’t mean a whole lot once the snap happens. I never paid attention to it. The right players never do either. They just go play the game.”
The winner will take possession of the Old Wagon Wheel for what could be a long time as this historic BYU-Utah State tradition becomes history when the final seconds tick off the clock.
For Falslev, beating the Aggies with his touchdown catch in 2012 will always remain the night a 5-foot-8 utility player became the big man on campus — and that’s history that can’t be dismissed.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.