PULLMAN – At certain points of this game, the white curtain of snow that descended on Martin Stadium might have obscured one’s vision to the point where it would’ve been difficult to see anything 94 yards in front of them.
But Luke Falk might as well have been standing 94 yards from the Holy Grail when Washington State’s offense took over on the 6-yard line with 11:52 remaining in the fourth quarter, trailing by three points and needing six to revive any remaining hopes of a Pac-12 championship.
The Cougars plowed the length of the field like they knew their season depended on it. The Cardinal, with all the same things on the line, didn’t defend it like such.
Falk waited until the eleventh hour to manufacture the most important drive of his career and the newly-minted Pac-12 career passing yards leader took 25th-ranked Washington State on an 11-play, 94-yard trek through the snow to lift the Cougars over No. 18 Stanford 24-21 on Senior Day.
“The way that we won (today), against a great opponent in Stanford, a lot of emotions came together when it was all said and done,” Falk said. “… I got pretty emotional and heck, I might get emotional right now. It’s just been a great ride and we’ve got to finish the ride.”
WSU finishes the season with an unblemished 7-0 record at home and, provided the Cougars Washington beat Utah in Salt Lake City next Saturday, they’ll be able to play Washington, in an Apple Cup that would double as a Pac-12 championship play-in.
“To go undefeated at home, you couldn’t ask for a better script for this team and the seniors,” senior running back Jamal Morrow said.
The best part about it? The script continues.
Falk and 19 other WSU seniors played at Martin Stadium for the last time Saturday afternoon. The quarterback, and many of the fourth- and fifth-year seniors who grew up in the program alongside him, were at their peak when they needed to be.
Some were instrumental in moving the offense when it was touchdown-or-bust in the fourth quarter. Others played a disciplined game on defense and finally made the nation’s leading rusher look mortal.
Bryce Love found crimson shirts and gray helmets everywhere he went and the Stanford running back, who hadn’t rushed for fewer than 147 yards in a single game this year, couldn’t do better than 69 yards on 16 carries Saturday afternoon. Love scampered for one of his signature touchdown runs in the second quarter – a 52-yard burst – but other than that, he was good for just 17 yards on 15 carries.
“I thought we ran the ball as well as you can against these guys,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “These guys are tough, we broke the big one but we didn’t break any more.”
Fresh off a 58-37 loss to Arizona, the Cougars rediscovered their defensive identity – one that’s allowed them to slow the league’s dynamic runners not named Khalil Tate – and managed to keep the Cardinal under 200 yards of total offense.
And late in the game, the “Speed D” left the game in the hands of the Air Raid offense, something that might have made a fan or two uneasy considering how the QB and his troops have sputtered at different points throughout the season.
Falk’s final year of college football hasn’t been without its peaks and valleys and last week, he was benched in favor of backup Tyler Hilinski. But on Saturday he showed the pocket poise of a fifth-year senior who’s been able to tattoo his name all over the Pac-12 record books.
The Logan, Utah, native hit Morrow on a short 8-yard dump-off in the second quarter to become the conference’s career leader in passing yards – “I should’ve dropped it,” Morrow joked – and gave the Cougars a 14-7 lead when he hit Renard Bell in the back of the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown.
Bell was met in the end zone by a collection of teammates, and one fan – more elated than any WSU player – climbed over the railing, pulled down his pants and flashed his rear end to the nearest FOX camera before being escorted off the field.
“I saw the video,” Bell said, “it was pretty funny.”
The Cougars grew their lead to 10 points when Erik Powell’s 41-yard field goal attempt cut through the snow and between the uprights, making it 17-7. But then WSU fell into the danger zone.
Stanford QB K.J. Costello recovered his own fumble and dashed into the end zone to make it a three-point game and on the next possession, Falk made his biggest error of the game while trying to convert a fourth-and-1 near midfield. Bobby Okereke telegraphed a pass intended for Jamire Calvin, made an interception and ran the ball back for a Stanford touchdown.
“I thought they kind of baited us into that play and route, where they were able to take advantage,” WSU coach Mike Leach said.
That meant a 21-17 Stanford advantage going into the final period. No team in college football had been better at protecting a fourth-quarter lead than the Cardinal, who’d won 45 consecutive games when leading after three quarters and hadn’t lost one in five years.
But the Cougars have been a resilient bunch at Martin Stadium in 2017 – no better symbol of that than the 21-point fourth-quarter comeback against Boise State the second week of the season.
“We’re not going to let anyone come in here and bully us,” Morrow said.
The Cougars weren’t to be bullied.
The drive that produced the go-ahead touchdown started 6 yards short of WSU’s goal line. Falk handed off to James Williams for a 12-yard run, but the QB was dropped for a loss of 4 yards on the next play and an incomplete pass brought up a gut-wrenching third-and-14 from the 14-yard line.
In as big a moment as he’s had this season, Falk stood tall in the pocket and fired over the middle to Tay Martin. The 17-yard completion kept the drive going.
“It was kind of almost identical to one we had last week, we just didn’t connect on a post,” Falk said. “He kind of let up and I kind of just threw it out a little too far and we had the same opportunity tonight. He ran it perfectly and made a great catch and a great play.”
Five plays later, Falk delivered the 115th touchdown pass of his career to true freshman Jamire Calvin, who caught the ball on the run and skated through the open field before front-flipping into the end zone.
The 11-yard score punctuated a drive that lasted more than five minutes. For the WSU fans who chose to brave a frosty afternoon on the Palouse, those 300 seconds had to be both chilling and thrilling.
For Falk? Business as usual.
“I wasn’t thinking about the big picture,” he said.
And thanks to him, the Cougars still have a big picture to think about – if they so choose.