Las Cruces, N.M. • Forget the quality of the opponent, the excruciatingly slow start on both sides of the ball or the fact that the road game featured as many BYU fans as New Mexico State fans.
The what-if game surrounding BYU’s disappointing football season took full flight here Saturday afternoon, just as coach Bronco Mendenhall feared it would.
Getting his first career start at quarterback in place of the ailing, often-criticized Riley Nelson, senior James Lark played almost flawlessly in guiding the Cougars to a 50-14 win over the woeful Aggies in front of an announced crowd — wink, wink — of 12,571 at Aggie Memorial Stadium.
“It is a dream come true. That’s the only way I can describe it, something I have been waiting for my whole life,” Lark said after completing his first 10 passes and finishing 34 for 50 for 384 yards and six touchdowns. “I’m just happy.”
Cody Hoffman set a school record by catching five of those six touchdown throws, for a career-high 182 yards, and BYU racked up 520 yards of offense. The Cougars struggled to run the ball until later in the game, which Mendenhall said “surprised and disappointed” him, making Lark’s performance even more impressive.
The defense gave up an early touchdown drive and a fluky, 67-yard touchdown pass in the second half, but revved up after “coming out flat,” in Mendenhall’s words, and held NMSU to 187 total yards.
Kyle Van Noy led that effort with a career-high three sacks, and Brandon Ogletree had a team-high 10 tackles.
Those are the numbers, but Mendenhall said the “memory I will take away from this one is watching James Lark, just to see how much fun he was having, and how thrilled he was for the opportunity to play. And I think he played well.”
The coach said he wants the “tone” of what happened on a sunny, regular-season ending Saturday in Las Cruces to be a celebration of Lark’s resiliency, commitment and dedication to the program. He said he wanted the narrative painted that way, obviously knowing he touched off another debate on whether the season would have been different if Lark had gotten more opportunities when Nelson was clearly hurt early in the season, or during last week’s 20-14 loss at San Jose State.
“It still hasn’t been decided yet, but in my opinion, I still think Riley is our starting quarterback, at this point,” Mendenhall said when asked who will start in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 20, but then mildly contradicted himself by allowing, “We might give James a harder look. I am not sure yet. Still too early to say.”
Lark wasn’t biting on the quarterback controversy question, either.
“I am not even worried about anything else than just saying it is a dream come true, and that’s all I am even thinking about,” he said.
The Cougars’ offensive weapons who seemingly benefited from a more accurate passer Saturday, also took the company line.
“I have Riley’s back through thick and thin,” said JD Falslev, who caught nine passes for 68 yards and a touchdown and returned a punt 42 yards to set up the Cougars’ go-ahead touchdown. “Riley battles. He’s our guy. He couldn’t play today because of an injury, and the next guy came in and did a great job.”
Lark said he received a text message from Nelson last Sunday telling him to be ready, but didn’t tell anyone except his wife until he got the confirmation from coaches on Monday that his first start after five years in the program was just days away.
“I just made sure I knew every play, every situation,” Lark said. “I knew New Mexico State as well as I could and prepared myself the best I could and knew the rest would take care of itself.”
R IN SHORT • In his first career start, senior QB James Lark throws six TD passes.
KEY MOMENT • On fourth-and-goal from the 5, Lark throws the first of five touchdown passes to Cody Hoffman midway through the second quarter.
KEY STAT • Hoffman’s five TD receptions are a school record.