SAN JOSE, Calif. — BYU's 20-14 loss to San Jose State Saturday night carried a lot of symbolism for the entire season.
All over the field, things echoed loudly for the 6-5 Cougars.
For starters, senior quarterback Riley Nelson got hurt, continued to play, had plenty of opportunities to lead the Cougars to a winning touchdown but could not connect on crucial plays. It was a rewind of losses at Utah, Boise State and Notre Dame.
This remains the season of "What could have been?" Saturday showcased that same theme.
"Credit them for making one more play than we did," said Nelson of 9-2 SJSU.
The Cougars now face struggling New Mexico State Saturday in Las Cruces, N.M., as a tune-up for the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego Dec. 20, likely against old Mountain West nemesis San Diego State and coach Rocky Long.
BYU led San Jose State 7-6 early in Saturday's game before sputtering and watching Spartan quarterback David Fales throw his second and third touchdown passes to give SJSU a 20-7 lead early in the second quarter. BYU's defense then stopped SJSU and Fales on the next nine Spartan possessions, but the Cougar offense could muster only a late fourth-quarter touchdown.
Four times in the fourth quarter, Nelson and Co. had the ball inside SJSU's 25 with chances to win, but penalties, two turnovers, overthrown passes and a blindside sack and fumble ended all but one of those opportunities.
"We couldn't finish drives and had a slow start. That was the story of the game," said Nelson, who suffered what he called a dislocated rib in the third quarter, running a keeper on an option. The rib popped out after Nelson fumbled, recovered the ball and felt the injury occur when a player jumped on him.
BYU had more first downs (24-17), more total yards (422-364) but lost two fumbles and an interception while SJSU gave up one interception to Cougar safety Daniel Sorensen.
Nelson's 20-yard touchdown to David Foote with 2:36 to play in the game cut SJSU's lead to 20-14. Earlier, Nelson's end-zone throw to Cody Hoffman was intercepted. BYU gave up another fourth-quarter possession inside SJSU's 25 on a controversial dead-ball motion penalty before the snap. Officials declined to play the down over and walk off the 5 yards.
"That was an error on the officials," said Nelson. "We should have got one more shot. The center didn't hike the ball. Nobody moved. I threw it over JD (Falslev) because everyone thought the play was dead."
After Hoffman recovered an onside kick after the Foote touchdown catch, BYU's hopes died after driving into scoring position once again. It came on a blindside sack and fumble by Nelson at SJSU's 25. "They had us man coverage, but it was a slow developing play and their guy made a great play by leaping over our blocker to get to me," said Nelson.
In a dismal offensive night, Hoffman was the star, hauling in 13 passes for 155 yards in front of his family and friends. Hoffman finished the game with a separated shoulder suffered in the second half, hauling in a quick slant when BYU had its back to the wall on the 1.
"Cody played with a separated shoulder, a severe injury, and he still kept going up after balls and getting hit," said Nelson. "I'm more proud of him than I've ever been of any of my teammates. He was playing physical after that. He is a unique and special player."
While Nelson left the stadium with his rib popping in and out, taking away his breath, Hoffman boarded the plane with a restraint and sling on his left shoulder.
Nelson said doctors did not think he broke his ribs. "It keeps going in and out. It's pretty painful. It's kind of a pain I have to bear."
Nelson said BYU coaches never talked about him coming out, although it appeared James Lark looked like he was prepared on the sideline. "I stood up and when I elongate the torso, it pops back in," he said.
"It's just one more thing to manage to finish the season. I knew I wasn't coming out. I've played with injuries before. I've played with rib injuries before. When ribs are broken, they stay broken. This isn't a sharp pain (broken) but more of a dull pain. I think it's a subluxation. I trust our training staff. I'll get it checked out Sunday and go from there."
Corner Preston Hadley said the Cougars gave up cheap scores early, then settled down. "It was a lack of focus. They came out fired up and were playing with a lot of emotion and we weren't able to match it. Then we settled down and played like a 'Band of Brothers.'"
Kyle Van Noy and Russell Tialavea sacked Fales once each to start the third quarter, the first sacks on Fales in five games.
Said Nelson, "Too little, too late. Combine that with a slow start. It is heartbreaking. We have got to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and come to work on Monday."
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