It was a pivotal moment in Lincoln Riley’s most pivotal game yet for USC, the kind of triumphant turning point every titular team inevitably needs, but at the time on Saturday night, no one in the Neilon family had any sense of the importance of a moment now known as Neilon Nudge.
“One of my favorite pieces I’ve ever had anywhere,” Riley said Tuesday.
Brett Neilon was just trying to get to the ball like he had been taught. All season, offensive coordinator Josh Henson had been hammering into the Trojans’ offensive line to run to the ball and finish on the whistle. As the sixth-year USC center broke his pass protection on those crucial fourth and sixth games, he saw Caleb Williams streak across his line of sight and tiptoe between defenders, ball in hand. Then the Trojans quarterback suddenly got stuck.
“I honestly didn’t realize how tight the first down was,” Neilon said. “And I was just kind of watching [Williams]. He was kind of looking at me, so I just ran at full speed and hit him. I assumed it was close because there was no whistle. So I assumed the refs thought he could be pretty close and struggling for position. So I just went and hit him pretty hard. Maybe the hardest hit of my life.”
From their seats in the far corner stands at Reser Stadium, Mike and Cora Neilon couldn’t see much of what had happened. Mike brought his binoculars as 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 nudge was all USC needed to elude Corvallis in a 17-14 win over Oregon State. Five games later, Williams placed a perfect throw at Jordan Addison for a 21-yard go-ahead touchdown. The defense responded equally with a game-ending interception to keep USC’s unbeaten start intact.
But it all started with the Neilon Nudge. The supplier of the play had spent most of his tenure at USC reliably under the radar, quietly doing what was asked of him.
During his 33 starts as a center for the Trojans, Neilon was never the most imposing or the most physical on USC’s offensive line. The four offensive line coaches who cycled through USC regularly praised his football IQ, reliability and leadership skills. But before his final season, Riley and his staff pushed Neilon to be more than that.
“We challenged him that you’re not Rudy. You have some skills,” Riley said last week. “Everyone’s looking at him, and he’s not a 6-foot-4, 310-pound center. We understand. But look at the guy in the weight room, he’s strong. He moves a lot of weight.”
Neilon wasn’t the only Trojans lineman to move Williams when USC needed them most. Right tackle Jonah Monheim arrived just a split second after Neilon. A split second later, left guard Andrew Vorhees flew in from the other side.
Social media seized Neilon; though he wouldn’t know until much later, when he finally saw the text messages piling up on his cell phone.
None of the other nudgers seem to have a problem with the viral moment being synonymous with their center.
“Oh, I’m great with that name,” said Monheim.
“We pushed him around the building,” added left tackle Bobby Haskins, “and gave him his own Neilon Nudge.”
On Tuesday, Neilon laughed that his game was compared to a more notorious foray from USC’s past.
“The Bush Push, [that’s] probably something special,” he said with a smile. “That’s two legends.”
The full history of the Neilon Nudge is yet to be written, the full weight of this moment to be determined later this season. But early that Sunday morning, when Neilon finally got back to his seat around 3am, he couldn’t sleep. The center of USC was still running on adrenaline.
Finally, around 5am, he decided to write to his father, whom he hadn’t seen after the game. They hardly spoke about the play until Mike brought it up himself.
“The best part of our conversation,” Mike said, “was when he said to me, ‘Dad, I’m just 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, Neilon soon left with the rest of USC’s offensive line to have breakfast at Jacks N Joe, where Williams was treating.
No nudges were needed this time.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/usc/story/2022-09-27/brett-neilon-bush-push-usc Neilon Nudge: Brett Neilon, USC Trojans break down a clutch push