PROVO — Given a chance to start at quarterback, Riley Nelson did everything in his power to solidify his position for another week.
Nelson threw for 219 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another 65 yards on nine carries to lift BYU to a 29-16 victory over San Jose State on Saturday night. The junior made his first start this season after replacing Jake Heaps in the second half of a 27-24 victory over Utah State on Sept. 30.
Although he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, Nelson made enough big plays with his arms and his feet to help the Cougars’ offense sustain drives.
“We didn’t punt once the whole game,” said Nelson, who completed 14 of 24 passes. “The only time we did not score was (because of) turnovers. So, it was a great offensive performance. We were moving the ball up and down the field.”
A solid running game contributed significantly to BYU (4-2) claiming its third straight victory. The Cougars rushed for 224 yards as a team, and Michael Alisa had a career-high 91 yards on 16 carries.
It was a breakout game for Alisa, who had been buried on the depth chart behind J.J. Diluigi, Josh Quezada and Brian Kariya.
“(The coaches) told me they were going to give me a few touches just to see how I did,” Alisa said. “I just told myself that I would make the best of every opportunity I was given.”
The Spartans (2-4) saw their two-game winning streak snapped largely because San Jose State’s defense could not contain Nelson during the first half. He guided the Cougars to touchdowns on three straight possessions as BYU seized a 23-3 lead in the second quarter.
San Jose State made a game of it in the second half, twice pulling within 10 points. After Bene Benwikere intercepted Nelson, Jason Simpson capped a 12-play, 96-yard drive with a 1-yard TD run to make it 23-13 with 6:09 left in the third quarter.
The teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter. San Jose State’s last chance to cut into the BYU lead was thwarted when Travis Uale picked off Faulkner at the Cougars’ 23 with 5:10 remaining.
“I liked what I saw,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said of his team’s offensive performance. “I liked the energy and the balance. I saw a lot of positive things.”
The only thing stopping BYU early was turnovers. However, one of the mistakes worked to the team’s advantage.
A fumble by Nelson at the San Jose State 3-yard line ended BYU’s opening drive. But the Cougars scored moments later when a bad snap sailed out of the end zone for a safety.
BYU went up 9-0 when Richard Wilson took a short pass from Nelson and raced 21 yards to the end zone.
After Jens Alvernik kicked a 24-yard field goal for the Spartans, Nelson found Brian Kariya on a 1-yard pass to make it 16-3.
Kyle Van Noy set up BYU’s next touchdown when he picked off a pass from Matt Faulkner and returned it 30 yards. Nelson needed just one play, a 40 yard bomb to McKay Jacobsen, to make the score 23-3.
By halftime, Nelson had thrown for 170 yards and three touchdowns on 10 of 14 passing. He had 42 yards on six carries.
Though Nelson took all of the snaps on Saturday, Mendenhall would not say if Nelson has become entrenched as starting quarterback.
“Riley hasn’t played that much this year,” Mendenhall said. “Those repetitions were all valuable repetitions, and all those game management situations were critical. I think (his playing) was a wise decision and probably the right thing to do.”