It was a pivotal moment in the most pivotal game yet for USC under Lincoln Riley, the sort of triumphant turning point every title team inevitably needs, but at the time Saturday night, none of the Neilon family had any sense of the significance of a moment now known as the Neilon Nudge.
“One of my favorite plays I’ve ever had anywhere,” Riley said Tuesday.
Brett Neilon was just trying to get to the ball, like he’d been taught. All season, offensive coordinator Josh Henson had hammered into the Trojans’ offensive line to run to the ball and finish through the whistle. So once USC’s sixth-year center disengaged from his pass protection on that crucial, fourth-and-six play, he saw Caleb Williams streaking across his line of sight, tiptoeing between defenders with the ball in his hand. Then, suddenly, the Trojans quarterback could go no farther.
“I didn’t know honestly how close the first down was,” Neilon said. “And I just kind of looked at [Williams]. He kind of looked at me, and so I just ran full speed and hit him. I assumed it was close because there was no whistle. So I assumed the refs thought he might be pretty close, jockeying for position. So I just went, and I hit him pretty hard. Maybe the hardest hit of my life.”
From their seats in the far corner bleachers at Reser Stadium, Mike and Cora Neilon couldn’t make out much of what happened. Mike brought his binoculars like usual, but all they could see amid the aftermath was a pile near the first-down marker.
“It wasn’t until I got on the bus to go back to Portland,” Mike Neilon said, “that people kept saying, ‘Hey, look man, the Neilon Nudge!’ ”
A fourth-down nudge was all the push USC would need to escape Corvallis with a 17-14 win over Oregon State. Five plays later, Williams placed a perfect throw to Jordan Addison for a 21-yard, go-ahead touchdown. The defense responded in kind with a game-ending interception to keep USC’s undefeated start intact.
But it all began with the Neilon Nudge. The purveyor of the play had spent most of his tenure at USC reliably under the radar, quietly doing whatever was asked of him.
During 33 starts as the Trojans center, Neilon had never been the most imposing or the most physical along USC’s offensive line. The four offensive line coaches who cycled through USC regularly complimented his football IQ, his reliability, his leadership. But ahead of his final season, Riley and his staff pushed Neilon to be more than that.
“The thing we’ve challenged him to do is, like, you’re not Rudy. You have some ability,” Riley said last week. “Everyone looks at him, and he’s not a 6-foot-4, 310-pound center. We get that. But you watch the guy in the weight room, he’s strong. He moves a lot of weight.”
Neilon wasn’t the only Trojans lineman there to move Williams when USC needed them most. Right tackle Jonah Monheim arrived a split-second after Neilon. A split-second after that, left guard Andrew Vorhees came flying in from the opposite side.
Social media seized on Neilon; though, he wouldn’t know that until much later, when he finally saw the texts piling up on his phone.
None of the other nudgers seem to have any problem with the viral moment being synonymous with their center.
“Oh, I’m great with that name,” Monheim said.
“We’ve been nudging him around the building,” added left tackle Bobby Haskins, “giving him his own Neilon Nudge.”
On Tuesday, Neilon laughed at the fact his play was being compared to a more infamous push from USC’s past.
“The Bush Push, [that’s] probably more special,” he said, with a smile. “That’s two legends right there.”
The full story of the Neilon Nudge has yet to be written, the full weight of that moment to be determined through the remainder of this season. But early that Sunday morning, when Neilon finally returned to his place around 3 a.m., he couldn’t sleep. USC’s center was still running on adrenaline.
Eventually, around 5 a.m., he decided to text his dad, whom he hadn’t seen after the game. They barely talked about the play, until Mike brought it up himself.
“The best part of our conversation,” Mike said, “was when he told me, ‘Dad, I’m just really having fun.’ It was a perfect capstone to his six years at USC.”
It was too late to get much sleep when they finally hung up. So before long, Neilon left with the rest of USC’s offensive line to have breakfast at Jacks N Joe, where Williams was treating.
No nudges needed this time.