Falk's starting debut one for the ages

WASHINGTON STATE HAS produced enough first-round NFL draft picks at quarterback to create its own version of a QB Mount Rushmore. Jack Thompson. Timm Rosenbach. Drew Bledsoe. Ryan Leaf. But none had a more spectacular collegiate starting debut than Luke Falk, who looked every bit as impressive as his injured predecessor, Connor Halliday, in the Cougars’ 39-32 win Saturday at Oregon State.

It is difficult to imagine a better first half from a first-time starting signal-caller at WSU. Luke Falk was accurate, confident and poised. He completed 19 of 25 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns to give the Cougars a 21-16 lead at the intermission. It should have been more as Quentin Breshears missed a straight-on 31-yard field goal on WSU’s first possession.

“He does a good job of that,” WSU coach Mike Leach said about Falk’s leadership skills during a postgame radio interview. “He’s kind of a mellower, quiet guy. He’s kind of got a slower drawl — and I do too. It works because they listen.”

Falk, a redshirt freshman who replaced the injured Connor Halliday, ran the “Air Raid” offense to precision. Without sure-handed sophomore River Cracraft, who missed another week because of an undisclosed injury, Falk found his own favorite target in Tyler Baker. It was fitting that Falk, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship earlier this year, was throwing to a walk-on. Baker, a junior who started his career at the University of Mississippi, caught a team-high nine passes for 113 yards. He had a 21-yard touchdown reception from Falk during the second quarter.

Baker’s most impressive play came when he broke a tackle at the OSU 10 and raced into the end zone. But an inexplicable, inadvertent whistle resulted in the ball being spotted at the Beavers’ 9.

No problem.

Falk responded on the ensuing play with a 9-yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman Robert Lewis that gave the Cougars a 39-25 lead with 5:57 remaining.

Just as impressive as Falk might have been the way WSU responded to adversity. There was the aforementioned special-teams gaffe. And Cracraft’s absence again was felt during the second half as the Cougars’ receivers dropped too many passes. None appeared more significant than the one senior Vince Mayle failed to corral on third-and-10 at OSU’s 28 with a little more than two minutes remaining in the third quarter. The ball hit Mayle in the hands and would have been enough for a first down. Instead, a fourth-down pass to Mayle fell incomplete.

The Beavers responded with a seven-play drive that culminated with a 46-yard field goal by Garrett Owens to give them a 25-24 lead with 14:15 left in the game.

But Mayle (pictured above after his TD grab pointing to Halliday's initials on his band) wasn't done. And certainly, neither was Falk.

On the series before Lewis scored, Falk led WSU on a 10-play, 70-yard drive that concluded when he was flushed from the pocket and found junior Dom Williams for an 18-yard touchdown pass. The Cougars then took advantage of a curious decision by OSU coach Mike Riley’s staff to attempt a two-point conversion in the third quarter that would have tied the game, 24-all, had it been successful. That essentially enabled WSU to go for a conversion without recourse if it was unsuccessful. But when Falk passed to senior Rickey Galvin in the end zone, it gave the Cougars a 32-25 advantage with 11:01 remaining.

“I feel the energy,” said Falk, referring to his teammates. “I feel them really rooting for me.”

As impressive as Falk looked, WSU’s pattern of winning every four years in Corvallis — 2006 and ’10 — would not have been possible Saturday without contributions from its defense and special teams.

Before Halliday sustained a season-ending ankle injury last week against USC — he had a Football Bowl Subdivision-best 3,873 passing yards — the Cougars squandered their hopes of advancing to a bowl with myriad breakdowns on those units against Rutgers and California.

And if anyone was poised to take advantage of WSU’s defense, it appeared to be Sean Mannion. In three previous starts against the Cougars — all victories — he completed 85 of 127 passes for 1,139 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions. Mannion completed 31 of 41 passes for 419 yards and a touchdown Saturday.

But when WSU took a 32-25 lead, the Cougar defense stepped up.

Senior linebacker Cyrus Coen forced a Mannion fumble, which was recovered by wide receiver Victor Bolden for a 14-yard loss to the Beavers’ 14. The Beavers (4-5, 1-5) then were forced to punt after a pair of incompletions.

“When it was our time to get into the game, Luke Falk was in our huddle,” said junior linebacker Kache Palacio, who had two sacks. “He was cheering us on.”

Behind an offensive line that often afforded him enviable protection, Falk did the rest as the Cougars (3-7 overall, 2-5 Pac-12) won for the first time since they claimed a 28-27 victory Sept. 27 at Utah. At that time, the focus was getting back into postseason contention — and not about the quarterback of the future.

Perhaps the first indication of the future came during fall camp, though. Multiple observers indicated that Falk had outplayed Tyler Bruggman, a four-star recruit in the same 2013 class that Falk was in. Bruggman later announced that he was transferring to Louisville.

If Saturday was any indication — and it is a small sample size — Falk displayed how difficult the quarterback position is to evaluate. The Cougars have signed some successful highly touted quarterbacks, such as Drew Bledsoe and Ryan Leaf, but Bruggman and 2005 signee Arkelon Hall fizzled out. One of WSU’s most successful signal-callers, Alex Brink, did not hold an offer from in-state program Oregon and OSU when he signed in ’03.

Falk’s well-documented recruiting trail — he held an offer from Florida State, among others, before his family moved to California and later returned to Utah — might be even more intriguing. He eschewed an opportunity to play in the Ivy League for Cornell to compete for the Cougars after his family moved back to their native Utah.

His script still has plenty of room for writing as he figures to be challenged next year by Peyton Bender and incoming freshman Tyler Hilinski. But Falk has an opportunity with two games remaining to position himself as the heir to a great quarterback legacy.

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