/ DeRego

Without star quarterback, Washington State looked too much like last year's 3-9 team in its 45-10 Apple Cup loss

THE NUMBER IN the left-hand column is different. Washington State's eight wins during the regular season were its most since 2003. But the Cougars' lopsided Apple Cup loss, 45-10, Saturday at Husky Stadium provided another reminder: just how small WSU's margin of error remains.

And how remarkable Luke Falk has been this season.

Simply put, Falk has covered up many of the deficiencies that were exposed during the Cougars' most lopsided loss against the Huskies since 2000 (51-3). When the defense or special teams blew second-half leads against Rutgers, Oregon and UCLA, Falk responded with come-from-behind victories.

Behind Falk, who completed 418 of 591 passes for 4,266 yards, 36 touchdowns and eight interceptions, WSU became ranked for the first time since 2006. But without him, the No. 20 Cougars looked little different than last year's team that finished 3-9.

The swagger that WSU displayed with Falk was nonexistant Saturday. Redshirt freshman Peyton Bender, who replaced Falk after he suffered a concussion during last week's 27-3 win against Colorado at Martin Stadium, too often forced the ball into coverage. He threw a pair of interceptions, but that number easily could have been doubled as UW defenders dropped balls that hit them in their hands.

But Bender, who completed 36 of 58 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown, was far from the only culprit in his first collegiate start. After all, WSU entered the game with three more takeaways than turnovers. But the Cougars were dominated in that statistic, 7-1, against UW.

Outside of sophomore cornerback Marcellus Pippins' 66-yard interception return in the third quarter that set up WSU's lone touchdown -- a 1-yard pass from Bender to Dom Williams -- the Cougars struggled to generate turnovers and slow a Huskies' offense that entered the game ranked 10th in the conference in total offense.

That might have been the most disappointing element of the outcome. For all of WSU's improvement under first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, the Apple Cup marked the worst performance on that side of the ball at least since their 45-38 double-overtime win Oct. 10 at Oregon. At least much of that could be attributed to standout Ducks' running back Royce Freeman, who had a career-high 246 yards in that game.

No such excuses can be made for the Apple Cup.

Too often, the Cougars were unable to generate pressure against an inexperienced offensive line. And too often, UW's pedestrain receiving corps found itself open. Jake Browning took advantage as he completed 14 of 20 passes for 203 yards. True freshman Myles Gaskin handled most of the rest as he rushed for 138 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries.

While WSU has been better on that side of the ball this season with the addition of Grinch and junior-college transfer safety Shalom Luani, there remain issues, particularly with talent deficiencies, that won't be addressed in the weeks leading up to the bowl game.

Until then, crimson-and-gray faithful will hold out hope that Falk again will help hide those issues -- and return a level of confidence that reinvigorated the program before the Apple Cup.

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