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John Blanchette: Luke Falk’s celebrated career, WSU’s solid season come to a tragic end in Holiday Bowl beating

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 29, 2017, 12:22 a.m.

SAN DIEGO – No hand has received this much attention since Thing on “The Addams Family.”

Yes, Luke Falk’s celebrated college career came to a sad and unceremonious end Thursday night – Washington State’s record-shattering quarterback on the sidelines at the Holiday Bowl in street clothes and his left hand in that brace or cast or whatever it is.

Not that we know for sure that’s why he didn’t play and backup Tyler Hilinski did.

“We felt like Tyler was the ideal guy to start with our lineup today, and he’s the one we selected,” coach Mike Leach said.

Whew. At least we know Falk wasn’t suspended. Leach doesn’t cop to injuries, so normally we can only assume the worst.

And speaking of assuming the worst, the Cougars once-celebrated 2017 football season came to an unceremonious end – as pretty much every Leach season at Wazzu does.

Oh, there was that Apple Cup rescue his first year and the Sun Bowl slog past Miami in the snow, which stranded enough fans in El Paso to make it seem like something other than a victory. But otherwise, Leach’s Cougs make their farewell toasts with hemlock: They’re 6-12 over the final three games in the years of his tenure.

Of course, he’s even worse at openers. In between, though, the Cougs are terrific.

So just don’t give him eight months to prepare for an FCS team, a month to prepare for a bowl or a bye week to prepare for the Huskies.

This time the exit was a 42-17 roasting at the hands of Michigan State, a Top 25 team at least. This wasn’t losing to a humdrum Minnesota outfit that had suspended a slew of players – which is what happened here in SDCCU Stadium a year ago.

Holiday Bowl organizers have already issued a request to the Pac-12 for next December: anybody but the Cougs.

Then again, there aren’t many attractive options. Your Conference of Champions is a lusty 1-4 in bowls this month.

But on Thursday, the Cougars set a standard – or substandard, if you will – for suckage.

Their offense – not just Falk-less, but minus also former starting wideouts Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack who divorced themselves from the program in the last month – was helpless, and dimensionless. The Cougars tried all of three called runs all game. Good thing the hotshot running back who picked Wazzu over Stanford signed before seeing this one.

Defense? Well, the vaunted Speed D was the Need D.

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke did a respectable Russell Wilson shtick, dicing the Cougs with his arm and legs.

Playing without standout Hercules Mata’afa for one half – his penalty for targeting in the Apple Cup – surely was a factor for the Cougs, but as safety Jalen Thompson noted, “Even when he came back, they were still getting a lot of plays off on us and driving the ball down the field.”

Allowed Leach, “They didn’t do much we didn’t expect and that’s one of the disturbing things about it.”

The other disturbing thing was how unprepared or perhaps even uninvested the Cougars were – and given that their head coach spent part of December playing footsie with Tennessee and the defensive coordinator already has a new job, could you blame them?

Naturally, there will be attempts to rationalize this one away, and if that’s not entirely unfair, it’s also not very persuasive.

Surely playing without your senior quarterback is not just debilitating, but a bummer. Falk had worn a glove on his left hand most of the season, apparently since injuring it early on. There were unconfirmed reports that he underwent surgery sometime after the Apple Cup, and when he was seen wearing his cast/brace to practice here, doubts about his availability grew.

Leach extended the charade into pregame, letting Falk go through warmups – though with the second unit. But he came out after the anthem not in uniform, and the emotional embraces he shared with countless teammates and coaches who approached him were telling.

Football isn’t always fair.

“Not being able to go out with the seniors he came in with, who really changed the culture of the program, it stunk,” Hilinski said.

But it’s also true that Hilinski has been thrown the car keys on a couple of occasions this season and that Leach had extended practice time to get him ready. And he hardly looked it.

There were other missing pieces, of course – the receivers previously noted, Mata’afa for that killer first half, Jamal Morrow for much of the second. But no one much wanted to hear that the Cougs beat Oregon without its quarterback, or Stanford with Bryce Love at half speed or USC with its offensive line a shambles.

So let’s keep it simple: Mike Leach’s Wazzu teams don’t show up in the end – in the big ones that count. And it’s time for him to take stock of that.

Even if the school that pays him so handsomely won’t.


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