Even before time had expired in the Brigham Young Cougars’ 50-14 win over the New Mexico State Aggies in James Lark’s first career start, many BYU fans had already formed an opinion about who should start at quarterback for the Cougars in the Poinsettia Bowl. They wanted an encore from Lark. Almost immediately following the game, BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall pronounced injured quarterback Riley Nelson as the starting quarterback, provided he is healthy by December 20. Who should it be, then: Nelson or Lark?
In the past two weeks, many entities have taken the pulse of Cougar Nation on this question of who should be BYU’s starting quarterback when they face San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl. BLUE COUGAR FOOTBALL conducted its own poll of site visitors, and the results very heavily favored Lark (83%), with Nelson a very distant second (15%). Two percent of voters were undecided.
These results were not surprising. Neither was Mendenhall’s staunch support of Nelson.
My position on this question is the same as it was two years ago when the debate was over Nelson or Jake Heaps. The quarterback that should start is the one who gives BYU the best chance to win.
Mendenhall has made it clear with his many statements this season that he thinks Nelson is that guy. I have very little doubt that the poll voters chose Lark for this same reason. Is one side right, and the other wrong, or does each quarterback give BYU an equally good chance to win?
The answer to this question depends on a lot of variables.
1. How healthy is Nelson? We all know that his play has suffered, a lot, this season when he was not healthy. He has already shown that he is turnover prone when under pressure. The likelihood that Nelson turns the ball over go up when he is not healthy. Nelson will have not played for one month when BYU takes the field in San Diego. A lot of healing can take place during that time.
2. Who does the team want to start? One of the reasons BYU had more success with Nelson under center a year ago than Heaps was that the team wanted Nelson to be the starter. The team was divided, but Nelson gave them someone to rally around with his comeback win over Utah State and his charisma. Although Nelson was inferior to Heaps as a quarterback, the overwhelming support he had from his teammates made a difference in how well the offense played. If the team still wants Nelson, for better or worse, then that could drastically drop the chances of BYU winning with Lark starting.
3. Who can better attack the San Diego State defense? Nelson and Lark have distinctly different abilities and styles. BYU relies on ball control passing game and emphasis on the run with Nelson at quarterback. With Lark, BYU had its best passing day in four years. Looking at the results this season, the better option appears to be Lark.
If BYU wants to score points, they are going to need to pass the ball. Four San Diego State opponents scored more than 28 points this season. They all passed for 290 yards or more. Boise State had just 164 yards, and lost 21-19. Wyoming was right at 28 points with 260 yards, but still lost.
Statistically, San Diego State is worst defending the pass than the run. The Aztecs rank 60th nationally allowing an average of 234.8 yards per game. They are 36th against the run allowing 140.25 yards.
4. How much of the New Mexico State game had to do with the Aggies being a bad team? Lark played well against a really bad team. Lark was never under any serious pressure. This San Diego State defense coached by Rocky Long will bring blitzes and try to disrupt whoever is at quarterback. A couple of turnovers from Lark early in the game because he is not experienced with this kind of duress could put BYU in a hole and give the Aztecs an insurmountable amount of momentum.
The original question, who should start, was a difficult for me to answer. I have waffled back and forth in my mind between Nelson and Lark. My biggest concern about Lark is that he is not fully battle tested (see question 4). I know this team loves Nelson and they rally around him. With this being his final career game, I expect him to have one of his better games.
In my utopian mind, I would like to see both seniors go out with a good showing splitting time as BYU wins convincingly. That is very unlikely to happen, intentionally.
If I were Mendenhall, I think I would start Lark. What convinced me to do that is question 3. Before looking at those stats, I was ready to start Nelson with a very short leash. What happens if Nelson plays ok, and the defense is having a good game, so BYU leads 10-3 at halftime? I don’t think Mendenhall can justify benching Nelson to the team that has elected him team captain.
I think BYU’s goal should be at least 35 points for this game. San Diego State could catch fire at any time. I would hate to see BYU lose because San Diego State rallies late, and a Nelson-led Cougar offense wasn’t able to score consistently enough all game to ensure a late Aztec rally falls short. However, since BYU didn’t trail until the final minute(s), Lark never got a chance.
What would I do?
Start Lark hoping to pass the ball well and score at least 21 first half points. If the offense/Lark struggles, then Nelson can always come off the bench and try to rally BYU to victory. One of Nelson’s good attributes is that he is usually at his best when it matters the most. When the pressure rises, Nelson rises with it. Coming off the bench in 2011 against Utah State he led BYU to victory. The end of both halves in the Armed Forces Bowl last year. The fourth quarter against Utah this year. In the late rally against San Jose State, Nelson had BYU very close to winning, even though he was injured.
I think this strategy gives BYU the best chance to win.
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