WSU's Luke Falk channels his inner-Tom Brady

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Rutgers' Janarion Grant caught the punt at his 45 and he was a streak of red, running down the right sideline for a 55-yard touchdown. Suddenly, with 1:31 remaining in the game, Washington State was in danger of losing this game, a game it led by 14 points in the third quarter, on the heels of an embarrassing season-opening loss to Portland State.

Mike Leach wasn’t surrendering. The head coach huddled his offense to provide some words of wisdom.

"Now this is pretty exciting, isn’t it?” he told the faces inside those helmets. “This is real exciting. See how excited they are? If you want this thing to be twice as exciting, march down there and score.”

Turned out, the Cougars had 90 yards to go with 1:24 to go. Then the cool hand, Luke Falk (pictured above) showed again that this team has a quality quarterback to lead the “Air Raid” attack. Falk completed 47 of 66 throws, good for 478 yards, no interceptions and four touchdowns, the last one being the winning 8-yarder to River Cracraft with just 13 ticks left on the scoreboard clock.

The Cougs pulled out a 37-34 victory Saturday over the Big Ten’s Scarlet Knights at High Point Solutions Stadium. And this was really a high point solution for WSU because a loss after somehow falling to an FCS team in the rain at Pullman Sept. 5 wouldn’t have been too good for the season’s prospects, let alone the spirits inside those Cougars’ helmets.

No matter what’s ahead for the Cougs, right now 1-1 is sure a lot better than 0-2. That 24-17 setback against Portland State marked the program’s first loss in 20 games against FCS competition.

“That loss really kind of hit home for us,” Falk said. “Everyone had a different fire in their eyes this week preparing. We knew we were going to come in here and it was going to be a dogfight. I mean, it’s just great to get the win. But this is only one of them. We’ve got a long season ahead of us. And I’m excited about that.”

Ninety yards away in a roller-coaster ride of a game, Falk was having visions of great drives past.

“I was thinking of the drive John Elway had against the Cleveland Browns and a few Tom Brady comeback drives,” Falk said. “That’s why you play the game. So I was pretty excited to get out there and play. I knew we had moved the ball pretty good on them all day.”

The 6-foot-4, 205-pound third-year sophomore, who flashed what he could do after taking over for the injured Connor Halliday last season, got in the huddle with day turning into night and said no special words. He just calmly called the first play, and the Cougars were off.

“Shoot, sometimes I wonder if I’m the only guy who gets under his skin,” Leach said. “… That’s one thing he’s really good at is just being calm under pressure and just leading the unit and just keeping his eye on things when it’s tough. He’s one of the calmer guys I’ve dealt with.”

The first play of the decisive 10-play drive went from Falk to Cracraft for 24. The second play went to Cracraft for 23 yards. WSU was quickly at the Rutgers 43. On fourth-and-five from the 38, Falk hit Robert Lewis for 12.

What happened two plays later could have deflated this unit. Falk threw a left-side screen to Keith Harrington, who made a cut by the sideline at around the 21 and zigzagged for a 31-yard touchdown -- which got overturned on review because Harrington had stepped out of bounds, nicking the white when he made the cut.

“No one flinched,” said Gabe Marks, who caught a career-high 14 passes for a career-high-tying 146 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown catch with 9:31 remaining to counter Grant’s 100-yard kickoff return that gave Rutgers its first lead.

“That was big for me because I’ve been around a couple of teams and this is the first team that hasn’t flinched when something like that happened that could possibly change the game and cause you to lose it.

“No one flinching on the offense and just going to the next play, I feel like that was what made everyone comfortable: ‘Alright, we can do this.’ ”

Falk, sacked just once behind his veteran line, scrambled for 13 on the following play. Then he found Cracraft going up in the back of the end zone for the winner.

“Luke from last week to this week has stepped up tremendously,” Cracraft said. “We were out there in the fourth quarter and his favorite player is Tom Brady, and he threw out some Tom Brady quote or something, like he’s watching us. He just calmed everyone down, put a smile on everyone’s face. Just gets us ready to go and kind of takes it down a notch.”

Falk had also talked to himself on the sideline during the game, taking himself up a notch with positive affirmations like: “I can do this. I can do this.”

Let’s just say this game was a big positive for him, not just because of the victory, but he’s also because he’s a quarterback who got to fling the ball 66 times.

“That’s why you play in this offense,” Falk said after setting stadium records for attempts, completions and passing yards. “That’s why I wanted to come to Washington State, walk on here, and have to an opportunity to do this. And now that I’m able to do this, it’s so much fun.”

Falk threw a lot of short, quick passes, but he also hit throws down the field.

“I thought that was one thing last week on my part that I didn’t stretch the field enough,” Falk said. “I thought this week that was kind of a big emphasis. We were able to do it. They were able to get open, and I was able to have enough time.”

Much to Kyle Flood’s dismay.

“They did a nice job of taking what we gave them and completing the ball,” the Rutgers coach said after his team fell to 1-1. “And all day, really … we didn’t really have an effective pass rush all day. We weren’t really able to get that quarterback off the spot, and that’s one of the things you have to do.

“You understand when you play a team like this that they are going to move the ball. They are going to have passing yards. That’s part of their system. But if you didn’t disrupt the quarterback, it’s really hard.”

Make no mistake, though. The Cougs didn’t throw a perfect game here.

They left some points on the field in the first half. They gave up those two long returns for touchdowns. In fact, Grant set the school record with 339 all-purpose yards. The defense gave up two fourth-quarter touchdowns that were called back due to penalties and yielded 402 yards overall.

Yet it also came up with three turnovers after WSU totaled eight all of last season. And Erik Powell delivered three field goals.

“This is a big win,” said Leach, now up to 13-26 in his fourth season, a record that includes a 41-38 loss to Rutgers in last year’s opener in Seattle. “We had huge contributions on all three sides, and there’s stuff we have to fix on all three sides. But I did think it was a really good team win, in particular sticking in there until the game was over.”

It doesn’t do that much good if Washington State fails to follow up back home against Wyoming this coming Saturday. But it does keep hope alive for a team that didn’t earn much in the way of expectations after the opening loss and after last year’s 3-9 run.

“This is the team that I know that we can be,” Marks said. “I’m really proud of all the guys of how we fought through adversity. This could be a really defining moment for us this year.”

NOTABLE NOTES
  • This was also the first time the Cougars forced three turnovers since they played Colorado State in the 2013 New Mexico Bowl.

  • Rutgers is in its second year in the Big Ten. The last time the Cougs had beaten a Big Ten team was in the 2001 Sun Bowl against Purdue.

  • Falk posted the third 400-yard game of his career as well as his fifth 300-yard game.

  • Dom Williams moved into sole possession of fourth in school history with his 20th career touchdown reception.

  • Sophomore cornerback Marcellus Pippins picked off the first pass of his Washington State career.


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