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Provo • After his team's easy 50-14 win over New Mexico State on Saturday, BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall described the just-completed regular season as "one of the most challenging years I have had as the head coach."
But the season isn't over yet, and neither is the second-guessing from a restless, unsatisfied fan base over the quarterback position that has dogged Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Brandon Doman for virtually the entire season.
The 7-5 Cougars will play again in 24 days, appearing in San Diego's Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 20 against a Mountain West Conference team, most likely San Diego State.
So sports radio station airwaves, newspaper columns and fan message boards will be filled the next three and a half weeks with opinions and speculation regarding who should start at quarterback, nine-game starter Riley Nelson or Saturday's hero, James Lark.
When first questioned Saturday as the sun was setting in Las Cruces after Lark threw six touchdown passes, Mendenhall said, "I still think Riley is our starting quarterback, at this point."
But two sentences later, in the same answer, the coach said he wasn't sure.
"Still a little bit too early to say," he said. "But I think rather than be forced into making that decision so quickly after the game, I would really like the tone of what happened today to be a celebration of James' commitment to our program, how long he has battled, and how well he did when he had an opportunity. I hope it will come across that way, and then our decision of what we will do will come out later."
Many observers saw this one coming: Backup quarterback steps in against the worst defense on the schedule and plays lights out, providing plenty of ammo for those who believed he should have been getting more playing opportunities in the first place.
For his part, Mendenhall said he didn't know how Lark would perform in his first career start as Nelson watched from the sidelines with a rib cartilage injury.
"I was hopeful that it would be one of those performances, and that it would be a great memory for him," Mendenhall said. "If you were to say, 'how would I have liked to have scripted it? I would have liked it to be like that. That made this whole game worthwhile to me."
But it has also sparked another quarterback controversy and reopened some old wounds over decisions made months ago.
"The execution, and the difference between 7-5 and maybe 9-3 or 10-2 [records] is a couple of plays here or there," Mendenhall said. "I really take that into personal account as I look at myself, our staff, to try to give [players] the best chance to execute. ... That's my job as head coach."
It is also his job to pick the starting quarterback, a job that Lark made a bit more difficult with a near-flawless outing.
"You know, it is the same explanation that I have given so many times," Mendenhall said when asked why the senior from St. George's Pine View High School didn't get the chance to show what he could do in a meaningful game.
"I believe Riley Nelson earned the chance to be our starting quarterback. And then again, when Riley started to get banged up, I believed we would have more continuity by having the same style of system and similar plays that Taysom [Hill] and Riley could run. I thought that would benefit our offense more than maybe tailoring it more to another quarterback. And that is the reason. There is no other reason than that."
The Cougars will hold a team meeting Monday, then go the next two weeks without practicing. After a couple weeks of conditioning work, they will start bowl preparation in earnest on Dec. 10, Mendenhall said.
P Dec. 20, San Diego, Calif.
BYU vs. Mountain West Conference No. 2, 6 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN
BYU's offense in the national rankings
Category National rank Actual
Total offense 57th 409.08 ypg.
Scoring offense 63rd 29.17 ppg.
Passing offense 51st 247.5 ypg.
Rushing offense 63rd 161.5 ypg.
Pass effic. 79th 127.06 rtg.