COUGS: 'This one was for Connor'

CORVALLIS – Connor Halliday never stepped foot in Reser Stadium on Saturday afternoon, but his presence was overwhelming. One week after Halliday’s brilliant senior season came to a premature end, Washington State players said they were inspired by their fiery senior quarterback in a 39-32 triumph over Oregon State. Redshirt freshman Luke Falk played brilliantly in Halliday’s absence.

“After last week,” center Riley Sorenson said, “we said, ‘You know what? We’ve got to go win these last three games for Connor, because it’s just sad how his career ended. These last three games are to honor him.’”

“We were playing for Connor,” running back Jamal Morrow confirmed. “It sucks that we won’t have him as a leader, so went out and played for him.”

“We were really motivated to go out and win for him,” wide receiver Tyler Baker said.

Falk, making his first college start for the injured Halliday, honored his good friend by delivering a Halliday-like performance.

“I took on a new role,” Falk said, “but I’ve seen Connor do such a good job with it, I kind of modeled myself after him this week.”

Good idea, young fella. Falk, who walked on at WSU and did not go on scholarship until this fall, passed for more yards (471) and touchdowns (five) than any WSU player had ever recorded in his starting debut.

Given that Falk had thrown just two passes prior to last week -- he performed admirably after Halliday went down in the first quarter vs. USC -- one would presume Falk’s performance exceeded expectations for even the most optimistic of his teammates.

“No,” Morrow said firmly. “We knew what Luke is capable of.”

“He played real controlled and calm,” coach Mike Leach said.

“He’s doing very, very well,” defensive lineman Xavier Cooper said. “All that is practice habits and him working hard. Luke’s a hard worker.”

Leach said WSU coaches recruited Falk believing “he was this good” out of high school in terms of physical skill. It is Falk’s poise that Leach finds to be “the biggest thing that’s ahead of schedule.”

“He’s cool, calm and collected,” Baker said. “He never gets too high or too low.”

“Luke’s a very confident person … (and) he knows the offense really well,” Sorenson said. “He studies film more than anyone I know.”

Falk, playing in chilly weather before an enemy crowd of 44,377, shredded an Oregon State pass defense that came into the game ranked second in the Pac-12 Conference. The Cougars, of course, lead the nation by a gazillion yards in passing.

“We expected him to do good,” Oregon State senior linebacker D.J. Alexander said. “They are a good passing team.”

Falk completed passes long, short and in between, under pressure or with plenty of time, and he scrambled expertly when necessary. Falk lacks Halliday’s powerful arm, but Falk’s arm strength is quite sufficient, and he’s more mobile than Halliday.

“He’s very good at buying time in the pocket and knowing when to take off,” Leach said.

So brilliant was Falk that his team’s overall performance was somewhat lost in the shuffle. Linebacker Kache Palacio said Saturday’s game “by far” represents WSU’s most complete game this season.

“Definitely,” Cooper said.

“Yeah … all cylinders,” Falk said.

The Cougars trailed 10-0 after barely nine minutes. Falk’s touchdown pass to Baker gave the Cougs their first lead early in the second quarter. Oregon State did not regain the lead until Garrett Owens kicked his fourth field goal of the game for a 25-24 advantage early in the fourth quarter, but Falk quickly followed with a TD throw to Dom Williams.

“We finished,” Falk said proudly. “That was the big key (emphasis) in the offseason. We finally finished this weekend.”

Falk completed 44 of 61 passes with no interceptions. His 471 passing yards are a season high against the Beavers, who had been yielding just 202.5 passing yards per game.

The Cougars came out sluggish on defense, but for most of the game, WSU defenders played with great energy and handed out some crushing blows.

All-time conference passing leader Sean Mannion passed for 417 yards, but he had just one touchdown pass. Oregon State’s 37 rushing yards against WSU were a season low.

The Cougars gave up 456 total yards (50 fewer than WSU had), but Leach said, “Once we got out of the first quarter, we played pretty good on defense.”

Leach also offered praise for the Cougars’ much-maligned special teams. Quentin Breshears missed a 31-yard goal and line-drived a 32-yarder that somehow cleared the crossbar, but kick-return coverage was much improved. Leach and Palacio singled out Willie Roach for strong play on special teams.

The Cougars (3-7, 2-5 Pac-12) snapped a four-game losing streak, extended the losing streak of Oregon State (4-5, 1-5) to four and climbed out of the North Division cellar by dropping the Beavers into last place. The Beavers’ injury-riddled offensive line continues to struggle (although they got back starting LT Sean Harlow on Saturday), and one of the nation’s most penalized teams drew a number of needless flags Saturday.

Daquawn Brown, WSU’s top cornerback, again offset some fine play by drawing two costly flags. He was ejected for targeting after a high hit late in the game. A new rule this year does not allow appeals on targeting penalties through either the NCAA or conferences unless a replay review is unavailable during the game, so Brown must sit out the first half of WSU’s next contest.

The Cougars have a bye before visiting No. 11 Arizona State (8-1, 5-1) on Nov. 22. WSU then finishes the season at home Nov. 29 against Washington. Limited tickets are available at www.wsucougars.com or (800) GO-COUGS.

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Senior wide receiver Vince Mayle broke Marquess Wilson’s school record of 82 receptions in one season. Mayle caught six balls for a game-high 143 yards and one touchdown. He ranks among the national receiving leaders with 86 catches, 1,052 yards and nine touchdowns.

  • Mayle was one of several Cougars who had “CH12” written somewhere – skin, tape, wrap, whatever – in honor of Halliday and his No. 12 jersey. He pointed to it after his 48-yard TD reception. Halliday remained home in Spokane.

  • Two more true freshmen, cornerback Marcellus Pippins and walk on long snapper (for punts) Joe Lang from Pullman High, saw action after being taken off redshirt status. Twenty freshmen have played for the Cougars this season, nine of them true freshmen.

  • Baker, a walk-on, caught nine passes for the second straight game while filling in for the injured River Cracraft. Baker, a redshirt junior who saw little playing time before last week, had a season-high 113 receiving yards and one touchdown. Another TD catch was erased by an inadvertent whistle. Baker says he has “no idea” why the whistle blew. Leach, wary of Pac-12 penalties for criticizing officials, declined to tell reporters what officials told him about the whistle. “You’ve got to be able to afford it (a fine),” Leach joked. The official stat book from Oregon State termed it an "inadvertent whistle" in the play-by-play.

  • WSU senior wide receiver Rickey Galvin had to be helped off the field and did not return after throwing a vicious block on Baker’s would-be touchdown in the fourth quarter. “Rickey Galvin sold out for his team,” Baker said admiringly.

  • Both teams registered four quarterback sacks, but WSU’s offensive line outplayed the injury-riddled O-line of the Beavers. Palacio had two sacks, giving him a team-high five for the season.

  • Senior running back Marcus Mason, who led the Cougars in rushing last season, made his second start of the year and had his first four carries and only catch of the season. Mason came in for Theron West, who had to be helped off the field after the Cougs' first kickoff return. Gerard Wicks missed his second straight game, (WSU does not comment on absences/injuries.)

  • The Cougars had just 35 net yards rushing, but Morrow – who also started -- packed the ball nine times for 46 yards (a 5.1 average) and caught nine passes (tying Baker for the team lead) for 51 more yards. “He’s a competitor,” Leach said.

  • True freshman cornerback Kevin Griffin made his first start, but again struggled and was quickly replaced by former starter Charleston White. Sorenson, who missed the previous two games with an undisclosed injury, returned to the starting lineup in place of Sam Flor.

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