LAS CRUCES, N.M. — After waiting more than six years for his chance to start a game for BYU, senior quarterback James Lark enjoyed, almost quite literally, a career day Saturday against New Mexico State, throwing for six touchdown passes.
In his first collegiate start, and his final regular-season game, Lark turned in a storybook performance in helping the Cougars trounce the Aggies, 50-14, before an announced crowd of 12,571 at Aggie Memorial Stadium.
Lark didn't need much grit — just an opportunity to play, and an opportunity to throw to Cody Hoffman, who caught a school-record five TDs.
"It's a dream come true. That's the only way I can really describe it," said Lark, who completed 34-of-50 passes for 384 yards and had zero turnovers. "It's something I've been waiting for my whole life. I'm just happy."
Lark threw for the most yards by a BYU quarterback in his first start. In the aftermath of the resounding victory, Lark savored the moment outside the locker room, flashing a 200-watt smile and posing for pictures with his family.
Lark said it was "completely" worth the long wait. "I didn't know if it would honestly, coming into this day. I mean, I had goals coming in to play at BYU. But the way I feel right now, every up-and-down, it's been worth it."
"The memory I'll 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," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "I think he played well."
In throwing for six TDs — one shy of the school record — Lark etched his name alongside the greatest QBs at BYU. He became the 10th Cougar quarterback to throw for six touchdowns, along with Gary Sheide, Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, Ty Detmer, Steve Sarkisian and Max Hall.
Lark completed his first 10 passes, and 21 of his first 25 attempts, to set the tone for the day against an anemic New Mexico State defense.
"I just knew I wanted to come out and take the easy throws at first and get a feel for the game," Lark said. "I knew once I got comfortable, I knew could start throwing it downfield. It was great."
Starting quarterback Riley Nelson, who suffered a rib injury in last week's loss at San Jose State, did not practice during the week. In fact, Lark knew as early as last Sunday that he would be making his first career start.
"Riley texted me Sunday and told me to get ready to play," he said. "In that moment, I canceled out all emotions and outside factors, and just got ready to play. I didn't find out from the staff until Monday. I didn't tell anyone but my wife. Once I knew it was true, I told my parents to book a flight and get over here. I was so happy to have them here."
Going into the day, Mendenhall wasn't sure to expect from Lark.
"I was hopeful that it would be one of those performances and that it would be a great memory for him," the coach said. "If you would were to say, 'How would you script it?' I would have liked to have it be like that. That made this whole game worthwhile to me."
Though Lark was 10 for 10 to start the game, the Cougars once again started slowly and didn't score until midway through the second quarter.
But Lark threw the first of his six TDs at that point, and added two more before halftime.
Mendenhall said his team played "flat" early on.
"I'm not sure to explain it, other than we expected it a little bit. After the first touchdown, we played well the rest of the time. Maybe more than flat, it was just punching the clock, a business trip, rather than a lot of emotion and passion. I told him at halftime I wanted to see them have more fun. I don't want to coach guys that don't have fun."
The Cougars — especially Lark — had plenty of fun in the second half. In the end, BYU (7-5) rolled up 520 yards of total offense and surrendered just 187 yards to New Mexico State (1-10).
Three of the Lark-to-Hoffman touchdowns came over about a nine-minute stretch from the end of the third quarter to halfway through the fourth as BYU pulled away. The Cougars were up just 23-14 before that.
"I felt like me and James had that chemistry," said Hoffman, who caught 12 passes for a career-high 182 yards, including a 64-yard TD catch. "It was nice. He put the ball where he needed to and I was able to come down with it. It just shows the confidence he has in me, and that I have in him."
Hoffman said he and his teammates were glad to see Lark get a shot to start.
"We were all for it. We know he works hard in practice every day, just in case a situation like this happens. We rally behind him and he was ready to play."
Its regular season over, BYU will finish the year Dec. 20 in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.
So, who will start that game?
"It hasn't been decided," Mendenhall said. "In my opinion, Riley is still our starting quarterback at this point. We might give James an even harder look and I'm not sure yet — it's too early to say."
During their time together at BYU, Lark and Nelson have forged a close relationship.
"Riley and I have been supporters of each other since we met," Lark said. "We've been best friends since then. I've been happy for him when he's done great. And I know he's happy for me today."
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