PROVO — Midway through the second quarter at LaVell Edwards Stadium, BYU was cruising, and it appeared the Cougars were on the verge of routing San Jose State.
Junior Riley Nelson, who started at quarterback for the first time this season in place of sophomore Jake Heaps, helped BYU storm out to a 23-3 lead midway through the second quarter.
But if there's one thing that's been established this season, it's this — nothing comes easy for the Cougars.
SJSU, which took advantage of BYU turnovers, fought its way back into the game, pulling to within 10 points in the second half. But in the end, BYU held off the Spartans, 29-16, before a crowd of 59,782 late Saturday night.
BYU improved to 4-2 on the season while SJSU fell to 2-4.
Nelson completed 14-of-24 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed nine times for 65 yards and lost one fumble.
Heaps did not play.
At times, Nelson, the left-hander from Logan, shined. In the first half, he had moments when he looked a little like Steve Young, scrambling around, throwing accurately, making plays and leading touchdown drives. He appeared to be the answer to BYU's offensive woes. At one point in the first half, Nelson's passing efficiency rating was an eye-popping 334.2.
But the Spartans made adjustments in the second half. After completing 10-of-14 passes for 170 yards, one interception and three touchdowns in the first half, Nelson cooled off considerably in the third quarter, going 0-for-4 with an interception, and completing only 4-of-10 passes for 49 yards in the second half.
One of Nelson's second-half incompletions was a pass that Nelson threw up for grabs, high in the air, as he was being pressured in the backfield. That could have been intercepted as well, but the ball dropped untouched.
Fortunately for BYU, sophomore running back Michael Alisa emerged as a weapon, and a workhorse, in the backfield. He rushed 16 times for 91 yards and kept drives alive.
The Spartans played without standout running back Brandon Rutley, who suffered an ankle injury during last week's victory at Colorado State. While SJSU rushed for just 70 yards, tight end Ryan Otten (nine catches, 108 yards) and wide receiver Noel Grigsby (11 catches, 88 yards) gave BYU's defense trouble. Quarterback Matt Faulkner was 25-for-35 passes for 255 yards and two interceptions.
On BYU's first series, Nelson marched his team to the SJSU 3-yard line before fumbling the ball away. But the Cougars scored one play later on an errant snap that sailed out of the end zone to give them a safety and an early 2-0 advantage.
BYU jumped out to a 9-0 lead a few plays later on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Nelson to tight end Richard Wilson.
SJSU cut the deficit to 9-3 on a drive that lasted nearly seven minutes, culminating with a 24-yard field goal.
Nelson answered with another impressive drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown pass to Bryan Kariya that gave the Cougars a 16-3 lead. Then BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy picked off Faulkner, and Van Noy's 31-yard return gave the Cougars possession at the SJSU 40-yard line.
One play later, Nelson threw a 40-yard touchdown strike to McKay Jacobson, who beat his man and caught the ball in stride, to make it 23-3 for BYU.
But Nelson threw his first interception of the night late in the second quarter and SJSU capitalized, booting a 40-yard field goal at the end of the half and it was 23-6 at intermission.
On BYU's initial series of the second half, Nelson drove the Cougars again, but he was picked off again, this time at the Spartan 4-yard line. That marked two Nelson turnovers inside SJSU's 4-yard line.
The Spartans marched 96 yards on 12 plays in 5:28 for a touchdown drive that pulled them to within 10 points, 23-13, with 6:09 remaining in the third quarter.
Then the two teams started trading field goals.
BYU had an 11-play drive that went only 28 yards and took 5:32 off the clock, resulting in a 40-yard field goal by Justin Sorensen with 32 seconds left in the quarter.
SJSU added a field goal of its own, a 43-yarder that made the score 26-16 early in the fourth quarter. Sorensen added another field goal, a 45-yarder, with 7:23 left in the game. At that point it was 29-16 for BYU.
On the Spartans' ensuing possession, Faulkner was driving SJSU deep into BYU territory when Cougar safety Travis Uale recorded an interception that essentially sealed the victory.