SALT LAKE CITY – Luke Falk and the Washington State offense will lament all of the scoring opporutnities they squandered Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
They’ll do that, surely, but probably not before they offer their deepest gratitude to Hercules Mata’afa and the tough-as-nails Cougars defense.
Seven times during the Pac-12 game at Salt Lake City, the Cougars pilfered the ball from the Utes – and more times than not, it left Falk and the offense in a prime spot to punch in six points.
The WSU quarterback, making his first collegiate start in his home state, will say the Cougars weren’t as efficient as they would’ve liked to be. But the scoreboard after four quarters reflected a 33-25 WSU win, meaning the Cougars were as opportunistic as they needed to be – just barely – in a game that held big implications for their Pac-12 title hopes.
Mata’afa registered three of WSU’s seven sacks – and had a game-high five tackles-for-loss – Erik Powell drilled four field goals and the Cougars sweated out a few nervous minutes in the fourth quarter to emerge with a road victory in front of a sellout crowd of 45,826 at Rice-Eccles.
WSU gave Utah the ball back with three minutes to go when Falk was intercepted by Kenric Young on the Utes 13-yard line. The home team only made it to the 41-yard line before sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley saw his pass tipped by defensive Nnamdi Oguayo and snatched out of the air by Rush linebacker Chima Onyeukwu.
Jalen Thompson then picked off a last-effort heave from Troy Williams in the game’s final seconds.
With his 117th and 118th career touchdowns, Falk broke the all-time Pac-12 record previously held by USC’s Matt Barkley, and in a game that also saw him throw interceptions, the Logan, Utah, native did just enough to vault the Cougars into another important Apple Cup. WSU can win the Pac-12 North if it beats Washington in Seattle two weeks from now.
Aside from a few explosive plays, the Cougars played a dominant first half of defense. Defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa led the charge with three sacks and four tackles-for-loss.
Turnovers doomed the Utes early and the Cougars left the first quarter with a 13-0 lead. WSU safety Rob Taylor was at the center of both takeaways. On Utah’s opening drive, the senior poked the ball loose from Utes receiver Raelon Singleton.
Falk led a nine-play, 46-yard drive and capped it with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Tavares Martin Jr., tying Matt Barkley’s Pac-12 record of 116.
On Utah’s next drive, Taylor telegraphed Huntley’s pass over the middle, sliding in front of the intended receiver to pick the ball off. But the Cougars couldn’t do better than a 44-yard field goal from Erik Powell. That was the story of the half.
Hercules Mata’afa came around the edge on the next drive to strip Huntley and give the offense the ball back on the Utah 19. But the Cougars stubbed their toe again and had to settle for a 32-yarder for Powell.
Utah’s Matt Gay drilled his leg through a career-long 56-yard moonshot to put the Utes on the board in the second quarter, cutting WSU’s deficit to 13-3.
And Utah made the Cougars pay for another empty drive on offense. Demari Simpkins set the Utes up on the doostep of the end zone with a 71-yard catch-and-run and running back Zack Moss punched in a 2-yard touchdown to make it 13-10.