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Cougars' 20-14 win against Miami is a reminder of how good program can become

AS QUARTERBACK LUKE FALK scrambled to secure a first down that clinched a 20-14 Sun Bowl win Saturday against Miami -- and the Cougars' most successful season in a dozen years -- it was difficult not to think ahead. That is because this feels like a burgeoning golden era for WSU football.

And look no further than the quarterback position for that.

While the Cougars earned the "QB U" moniker during the late 1990s largely behind the exploits of first-round picks Jack Thompson, Timm Rosenbach, Drew Bledsoe and Ryan Leaf, timing never was on the program's side. Thompson's greatness was underminded by unprecedent instability within the program as he played for four coaches in as many seasons. Then the latter trio all left for the NFL with one season of collegiate eligibility remaining.

Instead of visions of sustained success, WSU was forced into breaking in a new signal-caller. None of the quarterbacks that replaced the program's first-round picks guided the Cougars to a bowl during the ensuing season.

That is why WSU's first bowl victory in a dozen years felt different. Unlike any of the aforementioned quarterbacks or other standout crimson-and-gray clad signal-callers, such as Jason Gesser or Alex Brink, Falk secured a winning record as a sophomore.

For the first time since Mike Price made the fateful decision to board a private jet bound for Tuscaloosa, Ala., sustained success seems within grasp for the Cougars. That is not because of the primary tenants -- location, money and tradition -- that pundits like to bloviate over. It is because coach Mike Leach has a long track record of finding and developing successful quarterbacks.

At Texas Tech, Leach had a long stable of successful signal-callers that ran from Kliff Kingsbury to Graham Harrell. Not coincidentally, the Red Raiders advanced to 10 bowls in as many seasons under Leach.

There is no reason to believe Falk's eventual successor won't be able to build upon his success, as well. That is because Leach has a keen ability to identify quarterbacks and develop them. That is not as easy as it sounds when highly touted high school quarterbacks (Jake Heaps, anyone?) often turn into busts, while future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers was forced to go to a junior college because no major program offered him a scholarship out of Pleasant Valley High School in California.

The result of the nine-win seem also should enable the program to reinforce the talent around Falk and his successor. While relationships are paramount in recruiting, victories do not hurt. Consider that Leach's staff, with an assist from the new football operations building, appeared poised to attract an unprecedented amount of four-star high school talent following the program's last bowl season in 2013 the following season before that was undermined by loses and the defection of outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons.

But even without the benefit of those players, WSU could be primed to compete for its first Rose Bowl berth next fall since the 2002 season. Falk, who guided the Cougars to come-from-behind wins against Rutgers, Oregon and UCLA, was not at his best against the Hurricanes. For the first time since 2012 against Eastern Washington, WSU did not score during the second half. Falk completed 29 of 53 passes for 295 yards and two touchdowns, but looked out of sync in his first action since he sustained a concussion Nov. 21 against Colorado.

It did not matter.

Not with a defense that first-year coordinator Alex Grinch transitioned from one of the country's most anemic units into a group that generates pressure and forces turnovers. The Cougars forced three turnovers, including safety Shalom Luani's interception of Brad Kaaya with less than 3 minutes remaining, that helped secure the win against Miami. WSU outgained the Hurricanes 382-333.

Behind a resurgent defense and the Falk-led offense, patience will be difficult to muster before the Cougars kickoff their 2016 season on Sept. 3 against Eastern Washington.

That is because a golden era appears to be on the horizon.


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