Kragthorpe: Lark’s dream game becomes BYU coaches’ nightmare
Published: November 26, 2012 04:45PM
Updated: December 1, 2012 05:42PM
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Brigham Young quarterback James Lark, right, looks ahead to a receiver while rolling out of the pocket against New Mexico State in an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, in Las Cruces, N.M. (AP Photo/Las Cruces Sun-News, Robin Zielinski)

Anyone prosecuting BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Brandon Doman in a case of mismanaging their quarterbacks would have only limited evidence of James Lark’s ability in games.

Then again, the defense team would have absolutely nothing to show from those games in an effort to diminish Lark’s talent.

The reality is there’s no way of knowing whether BYU’s 7-5 record would be any different if Lark had played in September when Riley Nelson was slowed by a back injury — or subsequently become the starter. But the universal perception is that Lark would have changed everything, and the coaches have to live with such a what-if scenario as everyone reviews BYU’s season of underachievement.

Lark shredded New Mexico State’s 110th-ranked defense in a 50-14 victory Saturday. Prior to that, his most extensive action came against Weber State and Idaho’s No. 111 defense. That’s all the proof anyone can cite in suggesting Lark should have been playing all along, and those situations are a lot different than performing at Utah, Boise State and Notre Dame.

But nobody can say for sure that Lark would have failed in those venues. That’s the problem for Mendenhall and Doman, and it’s their own fault.

Before looking back, I’ll skip to the immediate solution: Nelson and Lark each should play one quarter of the Poinsettia Bowl, then the coaches can choose a quarterback for the second half. That would not be any kind of healthy approach in the middle of a season, but in a bowl game, it’s not unreasonable. And it’s the only way to treat two deserving quarterbacks fairly and clean up the coaches’ mess.

Could you even imagine a crazier sequence of events for BYU’s quarterbacking of these two seasons? Hang on for the summary: Jake Heaps begins 2011 as an anointed star, Nelson replaces him and salvages a victory against Utah State with a deflected pass and becomes the No. 1 QB, Heaps transfers to Kansas, Nelson opens 2012 as the embraced starter, Nelson is asked to play through injuries in losses to Utah and Boise State, Taysom Hill takes over and is hurt on an unnecessary run in the closing minutes against USU, Nelson returns and BYU loses three of five games before he’s sidelined again by an injury and Lark finally starts Saturday as a senior in his final regular-season game and throws for 384 yards and six touchdowns.

Afterward, Mendenhall tried to steer all the talk toward the nice ending of Lark’s career. It is a great story, but the fact is that Lark’s performance only raises more questions about previous coaching decisions. If Nelson had played brilliantly all season and then missed Saturday’s game, Lark’s fill-in work genuinely would be celebrated for its own merits.

The story would be retold of how he persevered through his church mission in Russia after his girlfriend, a BYU track and field athlete, was killed in an auto accident in Provo. Before he returned home, BYU had recruited Heaps and welcomed Nelson from Utah State, knocking him down the depth chart. And then Hill was promoted above him (before Hill was injured in his second start), so Lark’s chance to play in a meaningful situation came only last weekend, after Nelson was hurt the previous week at San Jose State.

But the narrative has to go much deeper, because of what transpired in September. It’s obvious that Lark — or Hill — should have played against Utah and Boise State. The coaches insisted on sending Nelson out there when he was not healthy, and that was a huge mistake.

Would the Cougars have won those games, and then gone on to beat Oregon State, Notre Dame and San Jose State, with a different quarterback? Not necessarily. It’s a big leap from 7-5 to 12-0 or anything in that range, even if BYU was close in the fourth quarter of every defeat.

In the coaches’ defense, after Nelson returned to the lineup in October, he did enough good things against OSU, Notre Dame and SJSU to give the Cougars a chance to win — and the country’s No. 3 defense certainly could have played better. Regardless, BYU lost all three games.

It also is undeniable that Lark is unbeaten as a starter, no matter how the level of competition devalues his 1-0 record and sparkling statistics.

In his five seasons as New Mexico’s defensive coordinator, Mendenhall lost three times to rival New Mexico State. The funny thing is, those defeats did less harm to his reputation than Saturday’s resounding victory did.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt