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When the 2012 BYU Football season began, there was no question about the identity of the team's starting quarterback. Riley Nelson was the senior incumbent, coming off a season in which he ended up ranked 16th in pass efficiency.
After coming off the bench for Jake Heaps in game five of the 2011 season to rally the Cougars to a win over Utah State, Nelson then paced BYU to victories in six of his seven starts.
Nelson's insertion in 2011 awakened a slumbering BYU attack, as he sparked the team with his mobility and ability to keep plays alive; the Cougars went from one of the worst third-down conversion teams before ho took over, to the best third-down team in the country over the season's final eight games.
He lacked the rifle-arm of his higher-profile predecessors, but Nelson was in essence ushering in a new era in BYU quarterbacking--one in which legs would ostensibly be as important as an arm. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Brandon Doman were now committed to a philosophy shift behind center, and Riley Nelson would be the first real case study of that evolving mindset.
Senior starting quarterbacks had a long history of success at BYU, and while unconventional in his style, Nelson appeared capable of helping lead BYU to a special season. He would have the aid of a defense that was projected to be the strongest in the Mendenhall era, and Nelson's 2011 performance gave reason to believe that he would be at the very least adequate as a signal-caller in 2012.
Starting only seven games last season, Nelson threw for 1,717 yards, tossing 19 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. His pass efficiency rating was 152.9; of BYU QBs to throw for at least 1,500 yards in a season, only nine had recorded better single-season passer ratings (Detmer did it three times, Max Hall and Jim McMahon twice, six others once).
Nelson ended last season in third place on BYU's all-time quarterback rushing list (662 rush yards), after running for 392 yards in 2011. A similar performance in 2012 would give him a shot at passing Steve Young (1,084 yards) for second place on the Cougars' alltime QB run chart, with an outside chance at surpassing leader Virgil Carter (1,225 yards).
In short, regardless of the chain of events that led Heaps to leave BYU for Kansas, and irrespective of the risk that accompanies implementation of running quarterback, the Cougar coaches had gone all-in with a QB they reasonably trusted to validate their confidence in him.
It took all of two games for that risk to result in injury, and two more games for that trust to be tested in defeat.
Nelson suffered back fractures in the second game against Weber State, then played hurt and played poorly through each of the next two gamed at Utah and Boise State. Nelson insisted he could play, and the coaches ultimately sided with him, with on-field results that could at least in part be tied to his limited if not debilitated state.
A season of considerable promise what shaped in those four weeks of September, and those early events and decisions are now re-visited in November, thanks to a backup quarterback's season-ending performance at New Mexico State that did nothing but re-focus attention on the earlier game plans, and later re-commitment to a QB who has been operating less than optimally for essentially the entire season.
James Lark's one and only regular season start came after Nelson's latest injury--damage to rib cartilage suffered a week ago Saturday at San Jose State. Nelson did not practice in the week before the NMSU game, and so Lark--who also expected to replace Nelson at Utah--stepped in, and stepped up.
Lark completed 34 of 50 passes for 384 yards and six touchdowns, with no interceptions; the yardage tally was the highest for any BYU QB making his first career start, while the six TD tosses allowed him to join only nine other BYU QBs who have thrown for six or more scores in a single game. The win was the team's first in the Mendenhall era with at least 50 pass attempts.
1-10 New Mexico State could arguably make anyone look good, but Lark wasn't just good, he was terrific, and BYU hadn't had a truly terrific performance at quarterback the entire season. Lark's passer rating of 172.1 was a full 15 points better than any other starting performance in 2012, and the best for BYU since Nelson's 176.7 at Hawaii last season.
The performance led to the inevitable question: why was Lark not given an earlier chance, considering Nelson's serious injury in week two, and later, Taysom Hill's season-ending injury in week six?
"We've believed all along that James was very capable," head coach Bronco Mendenhall told us on KSL Radio after Saturday's game. "I've tried to allude to the fact that I've said all along that Riley was our starting quarterback, and when he went down, I thought the best chance for offensive consistency was to have a similar-style quarterback in mobility to keep the offense the same, and I thought that would help the overall plan."
"(Going with Taysom Hill) was really nothing against James. I'm sure there will be all kinds of criticism or skepticism, etc. I'm just really happy for James, that when he got his opportunity, that he performed the way he needed to, to help our team."
The decision to play an injured Nelson at Utah and Boise State was clearly a critical one subject to legitimate second-guessing, but ultimately, Hill was called on to rescue BYU in Boise and almost succeeded in doing so.
If the coaches believed Hill gave BYU the better shot over Lark, then Hill's performances at Boise State, and again versus Hawaii and Utah State, seemed to justify that opinion. If Lark was being passed over, at least it was for the "quarterback of the future," who seems to possess many of the skills needed to be a special quarterback at BYU.
Once Hill went down, however, coaches faced another crucial call: go with a not-yet-fully-recovered Nelson, or play Lark. Again, they turned to Nelson, who in his next three starts (v. Oregon State, at Notre Dame and at Georgia Tech) threw more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (four). He ran for only 39 yards in those three games, when mobility was the calling card that helped earn him the starter's role in the first place. Indeed, to protect an injured Nelson, his role as a runner was diminished out of necessity.
Playing with a broken back, Nelson was not operating at full-strength, which particularly in light of Lark's performance at NMSU begs the question: was he (and why was he) still the best option at QB?
"I don't look back," said Mendenhall after the game. "I made the decision at the time, with every bit of information, every bit of insight, more so than anyone from the outside would really ever know."
"I still believe that it was the right thing to do."
Asked if it is now, after last Saturday, harder to affirm that an injured Nelson was still a better option than a healthy Lark, Mendenhall said "I think you acknowledge a lot of things, especially the opponent (NMSU). Really, there's not much to do other than...keeping an argument alive--for what reason?--when our team continues to move on and we have another game."
"I don't prefer to look in the past," Mendenhall said.
"Regardless of who wants to keep the argument alive, I don't think there is one. I believe exactly that what we did at the time with the information for our team was the right thing. That's my job to do what I do as a leader, and I would do it the same."
Looking to the future, who will he start at QB in the Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State?
"Riley will start the game at quarterback." Assuming he gets back to full health, of course? "Exactly right," said Mendenhall.
"I'm not sure how long it's going to take," the coach said about Nelson's ongoing recovery. "We have two weeks now before we start practice again, and so hopefully Riley can get healthy and be ready by the time practice starts again."
About how Lark has handled being a fifth-year senior backup and even third-stringer during this past season, Mendenhall applauded Lark for his forbearance.
"There's no question it has not been easy for him," said Mendenhall on Saturday, "and the way he has handled it, with the class and dignity and team-first approach, is beyond what anyone else will ever report on, or for anyone who will be in that position, will ever be capable of."
"He's just a mature, strong passionate young man that loves BYU Football, and to have him have the kind of day he did (at NMSU)...that was one of the greatest memories for me of coaching at BYU to this point."
Mendenhall added furthermore that Lark's situation should be an example to other athletes who find themselves in his position.
"Man, what a fantastic lesson for anyone out there who is in a team sport, that wants to focus more on their role than the team, this is the exact example that a lot of young people ought to take away, that there is more to team sports than just an individual and his own role."
I asked Mednenhall if he has allowed himself to wonder "what if?" after watching Lark's outing in Las Cruces, and this was his response:
"There is nothing about how he performed tonight that surprised me at all, and if the comments that I've made will just be taken at face value, it will be really clear what and why we done what we've done; it's been an issue of capability, as James is a very good young man and a great player."
It is unusual that a new quarterback controversy would develop after the 12th game of the slate, but in this season of almost weekly uncertainty at the position, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that heading into BYU's final game, fans and media are once again pondering "The Riley Question."
If Nelson recovers sufficiently over the next few weeks, and if Mendenhall's postgame comments are indeed taken at face value, we may already have our answer as it relates to the Poinsettia Bowl. Fair or not, it's unlikely that such a response will mollify those disappointed in BYU's 7-5 regular season--a season in which the phrase "what if?" will be its defining sentiment.
The fact that a 9-2 Boise State team is still on the mathematical periphery of the BCS discussion underscores just how within reach a special season was for BYU--even had it lost one of its highest-profile games.
Of BYU's five losses, only one (v. Oregon State) was by more than six points, and in that game, BYU and OSU were tied heading into the fourth quarter. In the other four setbacks, BYU had a chance to win or tie every game on its final possession.
Excepting the 42-24 loss to the Beavers, BYU lost four games by a combined 13 points. The Cougars during one recent stretch won 14 consecutive games decided by one score; this season they went 1-4 in such games. When the margin for error is that thin, and when the quarterback play during the season was frequently as shaky as it was, what transpired last Saturday at New Mexico State does little to take the edge off the sharpest of reflections, with Cougar Nation wondering what might have been.
For initially being less than forthcoming with coaches about his physiological well-being, and for occasional on-field decisions that were risky at best and reckless at worst, Nelson bears a requisite amount of responsibility for the season's sub-par performance at quarterback. While his desire to play through pain is admirable, some would say that by forcing his way to the field with a serious injury, he "focused more on his role than the team," to quote Mendenhall from above.
That said, it will always be up to the coaches to tell a player, whether Nelson or anyone else, that for the good of the team, 'we're going a different direction.' To that extent, Riley cannot be blamed for wanting to do the best of which he was capable at the time. Would he have been more effective if completely healthy? Undoubtedly. The fact is that after six quarters of play this season, he was injured to an extent that rendered him unable to "be himself" the rest of the way.
In Nelson's eyes, all he did was his job. It is the job of the coaches and medical personnel, as the final arbiters, to take the ball out of a player's hands, as they see fit, and they decided not to--not until Nelson had compiled a negative passer rating in Boise. Later in the season, through Nelson's turnover troubles in various games and a physically punishing night in San Jose, they stuck with him.
It took two losses for Mendenhall and Doman to initially conclude that Taysom Hill was a better option than a debilitated Nelson, and that decision, although perhaps late in coming, paid off. After Hill's departure, the coaches' belief in a recovering Nelson over a healthy Lark was met with mixed results. The way Lark played last Saturday, that latest judgement will understandably come under greater scrutiny.
After Saturday's game, I asked Lark if there was any part of him that wanted his performance to stand as an 'I told you so' to coaches or anyone else watching, and this is what he said:
"That hasn't crossed my mind, and it never will cross my mind. It's never my decision whether I play or not, and I'm just grateful, honestly, to my Heavenly Father, that my dreams came true today--to be the starting quarterback at BYU."
No matter what transpires on December 20th in San Diego, or how what happened in 2012 will impact the BYU QB situation in 2013 and beyond, Lark's words portrayed a certain purity of purpose. After a rough BYU season, as this one has been, Lark represents a good reminder that bitterness need not be a necessary partner to disappointment.
Switching over to basketball now, and what a nice bounce-back this past week was for Dave Rose's Cougars. After dropping consecutive games in New York to fall to 2-2 on the young season, BYU won both of its games last week, defeating UTSA 81-62 and a previously-undefeated Cal State Northridge squad 87-75--with both games played at the Marriott Center, and the latter featuring recruiting target Jabari Parker in the crowd.
In four home games, BYU has averaged better than 82 points per game, while shooting 51% from the field and an acceptable 38% from the three-point line, while hitting on 78% of its free throws. BYU's two neutral site games (losses to Florida State and Notre Dame) see BYU's corresponding numbers at 69.0 points, 36% FG, 23% 3PFG and 76% FT.
Perhaps the most impressive thing to come out of the season's first six games has been the play of recently-returned missionary Tyler Haws, who in two games last week averaged 26 points and six rebounds per contest.
Saturday's win over the Matadors featured Haws scoring a career-high 32 points, extending to six games his streak of 20-plus point scoring games to start a season--the second-longest BYU streak ever, and only one behind Devin Durrant, who began the 1983-84 season scoring 20 or more in seven straight games to the begin the season.
Haws is second in the West Coast Conference in points per game, leads the league in free throw percentage (94%; of players with at least 30 FTA, he is third nationally), is 7th in rebounds/game and is 10th in FG%. Haws is also in the league's top 15 in APG, 3PFG%, 3PFG/gm, and A/TO ratio.
That he is doing this only a handful of games into his first season after two years of inactivity is nothing short of remarkable. On a team with a fair number of players who took part in a lot of games and wins over the last two seasons, Haws has been the team's best and most consistent player.
Great for Haws, but not so great for Rose, who continues to look for lineup answers and develop a depth that is currently lacking on the BYU roster.
After starting the same lineup in each of the first five games, Rose replaced Matt Carlino with Craig Cusick and Josh Sharp with Agustin Ambrosino to begin the Northridge game, and both benched players played well as substitutes. Only Haws, Brandon Davies and Brock Zylstra (the team's three captains) have started every game.
Last season, nine players averaged 10 or more minutes per game; early in this season, that number is down to seven. The three newcomers to the program are off to a tentative start to the season, with Ambrosino, Raul Delgado and Cory Calvert averaging 6.1 mpg and 1.2 ppg, with three combined DNPs and zero combined free throws. As a group, the trio is shooting 32% from the field, 25% from the arc and has yet to attempt a free throw.
Ambrosino and Delgado were brought in as ready-to-contribute junior college transfers and Calvert was recruited as a valued shooter and championship-pedigree prepster, but so far, the three have struggled to make an impact; BYU's projected depth has suffered as a result.
However, as Rose has noted, the newer guys are still learning every in and out of the BYU system, so time should be a healer, relative to the newcomers' woes.
Which brings us to my first PAP rankings of the season.
PAP stands for Points Available Percentage, which is my pet stat measuring a player's scoring efficiency, expressed as a percentage of points scored compared to the number of points available to that player.
In other words, the PAP numbers generally tell you which players are taking the best advantage of their scoring opportunities.
The formula for PAP is as follows:
(2PFGM x 2) + (3PFGM x 3) + FTM/(2PFGA x 2) + (3PFGA x 3) + FTA x 100
Points Available Percentages for BYU Players (as of 11/26/12)
|Rank||Player||Games Played||Minutes Per Game||Points||Points Available||PAP (%)|
Notes: Normally, I only rank players averaging 10-plus minutes per game; this early in the season, I will rank every player. Of course, more ranking weight should be given to the players getting more playing time.
Takeaways from the first rankings:
--BYU is really riding Haws hard right now, and I'm not sure a return missionary can maintain his second-long effectiveness while averaging 34-plus minutes per game. Of course, if anyone can do it, Tyler can--he's amazing.
--Too many players are under-performing on the offensive end. The 2011-12 season ended with only two of 12 players under 40.0% in the PAP rankings. Early in the 2012-13 season, half of the roster--six of 12 players--are under 40%.
--He doesn't play a lot, and in longer stretches only when Brandon Davies is in foul trouble, but Ian Harward has been serviceable on the offensive end, with limited looks. If he can bring his personal fouls/40 minutes number down from the current 19.3, BYU can look to him with some confidence, in whatever time he sees.
--Nate Austin is in a sophomore slump. He ended last season with a 51.8% PAP, so his 38.2% start is a significant backwards step. Safe to say that Nate's offseason of inactivity (shoulder surgery) is showing up right now.
--Point guard is a problem. Between the two of them, Carlino and Cusick have a nice enough assist-to-turnover rate of 2.2-to-1 (48 assists, 22 turnovers), but as shooters, neither player has impressed, with Carlino's early season numbers nothing short of staggering. Consider that of last season's nine players averaging 10-plus minutes per game, Anson Winder had the lowest PAP number, at 38.0%. Carlino is nearly a full 10 points below that mark, and his 1-for-17 three-point shooting is almost entirely to blame. Cusick's 39.1% is also a poor number (down from his 40.7% last season), and needs to come up, regardless of how long he stays in the starting lineup.
BYU plays its first of two games at Energy Solutions Arena Wednesday night against Montana, a 3-1 team that owns a season-opening loss at Colorado State, followed by three straight wins--the last two by three points (at Idaho) and one point (home to San Diego).
Game time Wednesday night is 7:00pm, with pregame coverage starting at 6:00 on KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM and 1160 AM.
Photo: Courtesy BYU Photo