Injury opens the door for WSU’s Falk

HE WAS ONE of the few positives in a disappointing third season under coach Mike Leach. Even through all of the defensive and special-teams woes, some pundits still viewed Washington State senior quarterback Connor Halliday as a dark horse Heisman contender. But any of those hopes appeared to end when Halliday was carted off the field during a 44-17 loss Saturday against USC at Martin Stadium.

Enter redshirt freshman Luke Falk.

Criticism of Leach was rampant on social media when Leach elected to stick with Halliday throughout a 59-37 loss Oct. 25 against Arizona. Some felt sticking with Halliday subjected him to unnecessary risk of injury in a blowout. Others thought the coaching staff should aim to get Falk experience.

Barring injury, Falk should receive no shortage of opportunities as the Cougars (2-7 overall, 1-5 Pac-12) are ineligible for a bowl for the second time in three seasons under Leach. Leach does not discuss injuries, but his remarks during a postgame radio interview seemed to affirm that Halliday won’t return this season.

“He’s in surgery right now and has made tremendous contributions to this program,” Leach said of Halliday. “He’s meant a great deal to this program in a lot of tangible ways that are hard to describe to the public.”

While Falk will be subject to an open competition against Peyton Bender and incoming freshman Tyler Hilinski, experience only figures to enhance his candidacy to start next year.

Falk, a walk-on from Utah, only had thrown two passes — both completions — before Saturday. He completed 38 of 57 passes for 370 yards, two touchdowns and one interception Saturday.

It is difficult — and unwise — to make too many assessments based Falk’s first extensive playing time. He had decent protection at times, but his unfamiliarity with sophomore center Sam Flor showed through multiple exchange issues. The most frustrating came early in the fourth quarter when Falk found senior running back Theron West for a 19-yard completion to set up first down at the Trojans’ 19-yard line. But during the silent count, the snap hit Falk in the face and was recovered by USC’s Scott Felix.

Falk’s lone interception came on a Hail Mary to end the first half, but there were at least two other throws that should have resulted in turnovers. The most notable came with 4 minutes, 40 seconds, remaining in the third quarter when Falk’s pass bounced off Hayes Pullard’s hands.

There also were a couple of significant factors that worked against Falk. Similar to Halliday, who left with 8:36 remaining in the first quarter when he was hit by Leonard Williams after a 14-yard third-down conversion to Vince Mayle, he could not rely on the running game. Halliday, who appeared to suffer an injury to his right leg, had the experience that enabled him to overcome some of those issues, but WSU’s 34 rushing yards on 26 carries only thrust more challenges on Falk’s shoulders. Even when discounting Falk’s negative-13 yards on 10 carries, the ground game was insufficient.

And without sure-handed sophomore River Cracraft, who missed the game with an undisclosed injury, the Cougars’ receiving corps had too many drops. Senior Vince Mayle caught nine passes for 83 yards to become the 11th player in program history to surpass 1,000 receiving yards (1,009) in a single season, but he also failed to corral multiple passes. The biggest came in the fourth quarter on third-and-goal at the 8 when Falk’s pass hit him in the hands in the end zone.

“I think the guys around [Falk] need to do a better job,” said junior Tyler Baker, who started in place of Cracraft. “We need to step up.”

Falk had to play catchup from the get-go as WSU maintained its weekly routine with a massive special-teams breakdown when Nelson Agholor returned a punt 65 yards to give the Trojans a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. Halliday, who 6 of 9 passes for 40 yards, then helped USC extend that lead when he was intercepted by Pullard, who returned it 19 yards to the Cougars’ 19.

The quarterback change further stymied the offense as WSU punted on Falk’s first four possessions. On the fifth, Leach elected to unsuccessfully attempt a fourth-and-2 conversion at the Cougars’ 36. Two plays later, Cody Kessler found Juju Smith for a 22-yard touchdown that extended the Trojans’ lead to 24-0 in the second quarter.

Kessler, who completed 21 of 32 passes for 400 yards, victimized WSU’s youthful secondary for five touchdown passes.

“We need to do a better job of dealing with adversity,” Leach said. “We’re all over the map. Our emotions are all over the place because of whatever the situation is. Until that changes we’re not going to be a very good football team.”

Despite that, Falk displayed an ability to sustain success on the Cougars’ three scoring drives — and others. USC had its share of explosive plays as four receivers had receptions of at least 22 yards, which partially contributed to WSU’s time-of-possession (36:30-23:30) dominance. But Falk’s first touchdown pass, a 9-yard throw to redshirt freshman Robert Lewis, was the culmination of an 11-play, 81-yard drive.

Falk also led WSU on a 12-play, 74-yard drive on its second possession of the third quarter. That drive stalled at the Trojans’ 10, but a 27-yard field goal by junior Quentin Breshears cut their deficit to 24-10 with 6:10 left in the third period.

After junior defensive lineman Darryl Paulo forced — and recovered — a fumble at USC’s 7 midway through the final quarter, Falk also had an opportunity to display his poise. He twice was sacked, which set up fourth-and-goal from the 12. Falk then threw a perfectly placed ball near the right-hand corner of the end zone that senior Isiah Myers hauled in for a touchdown.

“I’m really proud of Luke,” Baker said, who had 89 yards on nine receptions. “I think he stepped up and did a great job.”

Despite his inexperience, it did not feel like Leach scaled back the offense for Falk. Leach said “probably not” when asked if the offense will be adjusted for Falk when he makes his first start Saturday at Oregon State.

“He’s well ahead of his time and is knowledgeable,” he said.

And perhaps the program’s longterm solution at quarterback.

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