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Provo • Riley Nelson picked up where he left off last week, at least in the first half, and apparently played well enough Saturday night to ensure he will be BYU's starter at quarterback for another game.
It certainly didn't hurt his cause.
Nelson, getting his first start of the season a reward of sorts after rescuing the Cougars in relief of regular starter Jake Heaps against Utah State ran and passed BYU to a 29-16 win over San Jose State on Saturday night in front of 59,782 at LaVell Edwards Stadium. But he also threw two interceptions and fumbled another time when the Cougars were going in for a score.
"I was really encouraged and pleased by how he played," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said of Nelson. "Really only one decision I would say that was a poor decision, and that was the interception he threw in the northeast corner. ... Other than that, he managed the game well and what I hoped I would see from him at quarterback is what I saw. And I think without getting too far ahead of ourselves, and without watching game film, etc., I loved the energy of our football team, and I loved the diversity that our team had in terms of number of weapons."
It was the third straight win for BYU (4-2), after it took a 23-6 halftime lead behind Nelson's three touchdown passes and then held on in a herky-jerky second half, snapping the 2-4 Spartans' two-game winning streak.
Nelson completed 14 of 24 passes for 219 yards and the three TDs, and also ran for 65 yards. The Cougars were 8 of 11 on third down and never punted in churning out 443 yards, all while Heaps watched the entire game from the sidelines.
"Pretty average. About a C," Nelson said when asked to assess his performance. "Three turnovers in the red zone was bad news, and all three were my fault. [I need] better ball security on the fumble."
After a stellar first half, the transfer from Utah State opened the second half by throwing an interception after the Cougars were running the ball at will, having moved to the SJSU 32 before the pick.
And that drastically altered the momentum, as the Spartans promptly drove 96 yards in 12 plays to get back into a game that was on the verge of being a rout.
After throwing for 170 yards in the first half, Nelson had zero passing yards in the third quarter, which ended with BYU's Justin Sorensen kicking a 42-yard field goal to give the Cougars a 26-13 lead.
San Jose State answered with a 52-yard drive and a 43-yard field goal to trim BYU's lead to 10 with 10:41 left in the game, but the Cougars returned the favor three minutes and 11 seconds later with a 45-yarder by Sorensen.
Travis Uale sealed the win by intercepting SJSU quarterback Matt Faulker with 5:11 left in the game, the Cougars' second interception.
Nelson threw touchdown passes of 21, 1 and 40 yards in the first half to Richard Wilson, Bryan Kariya and McKay Jacobson, but also threw a bad pass that was intercepted, a turnover that set up a short SJSU field goal. Was it a good enough performance for Nelson to keep his starting job?
"Most likely," said Mendenhall. "I would rather not say yet. I would rather just watch the film, talk to the offensive coaches, and kinda keep it working that way. But hard when you win two football games, and he had a significant role in it, to make a change. And we are still productive 443 yards on 68 plays with points still left out there, and 8 of 11 on third downs. Those are pretty good numbers. Productivity really is what is driving the decision."
Asked if he thinks he should keep the starting job, Nelson said, "I don't worry about. Like I said last week, I don't make personnel decisions."
The junior lefthander was sharp early, driving the Cougars deep into San Jose State territory on BYU's opening possession. But he fumbled the ball away after a 12-yard run at the 3. On the next play, San Jose State's snap went out of the back of the end zone for a Cougar safety.
The Cougars looked like they were going to post an easy win in the first half. BYU's Kyle Van Noy returned an interception 31 yards on SJSU's next possession, and Nelson promptly threw a 40-yard TD strike to Jacobson to put the Cougars ahead 23-3 midway through the second quarter. His passer efficiency was off the charts at that point, but he missed Marcus Mathews on the next drive, and the ball was intercepted.
"It was a good football game, especially from an offensive growth perspective," Mendenhall said.
The Cougars' other offensive star was a surprise reserve running back Mike Alisa rushed for 91 yards on 16 carries, both career highs, and part of the Cougars' 224 yards on the ground.
Storylines BYU 29,San Jose State 16
R In Short • Quarterback Riley Nelson plays reasonably well in his first start of the season.
Key Moment • After Kyle Van Noy's 31-yard interception return, Nelson throws a 40-yard touchdown strike to McKay Jacobson.
Key Stat • The Cougars overcome three turnovers.