PULLMAN – Mike Leach hasn’t hesitated to shuffle the deck this season when starting quarterback Luke Falk isn’t moving the Cougars offense effectively or efficiently. Twice now, the Washington State coach has gone to the bullpen for relief, replacing Falk with backup Tyler Hilinski – most recently in the second quarter of Saturday’s 58-37 loss to Arizona, when it was all the Cougars could do to cross midfield.
But Leach says he won’t be holding QB1 auditions this week at practice as the Cougars gear up to play Stanford on Saturday in Pullman (12:30 p.m., Fox).
“We’ll start Luke,” the coach said on Monday during his weekly news conference.
So once again, Falk, the fourth-year starter, will have a chance to take down the Pac-12 Conference record for career passing yards held by Sean Mannion and now needs only 132 to leapfrog the former the Oregon State quarterback.
Falk was on track to get there Saturday in Tucson, but with a few minutes remaining in the second quarter, Leach yanked his starter in favor of Hilinski. For all that he’s done to make the Air Raid offense one of the most potent in the country – and make WSU one of the most consistent winners in the Pac-12 the last three seasons – Falk has a tendency to get inside his own head, and at times this season, the Cougars have become stagnant because of it.
“I think he just needs to not put any pressure on himself,” Leach said. “Because he’s worked hard, he’s trained, he needs to just do the best he can and be pleased with that. Because that’s all anybody’s got is their best and nobody trains harder than him anyway, so he needs to just understand that his best is plenty.”
Leach didn’t necessarily intend to keep Falk on the sideline the whole game – “I wanted Luke to see the field,” he said afterward – but Hilinski drove the Cougars into the end zone before halftime, then threw an 8-yard touchdown to Tay Martin early in the third quarter and scrambled into the end zone after that to give the Cougars their first lead, 27-23.
“He kind of gave us a spark,” Leach said.
Hilinski’s numbers told two stories on Saturday. He was 45-of-61 with 509 yards, two passing touchdowns and two more on the ground. He rolled up 441 yards in the air during the second half alone. The other side of that? Hilinski threw four interceptions that accounted for a few major point swings.
Reckless at times, Hilinski plays loose and free under center. Falk has the precision most quarterbacks would clamor for, but he’s not the risk-taker his backup is, and it occasionally means tightening up or getting conservative. He was a little of both Saturday in Tucson.
“I think when he plays his best, he just goes out and plays and sometimes he plays slow,” Leach said. “I think that it wasn’t just him, it was our offense as well.”
Falk, a four-year starter who’s been a figure in the Heisman Trophy conversation at certain points this year and has just 4-5 games remaining in a WSU uniform, stayed stoic on the sideline as Hilinski took every offensive snap in the second half.
“I think he’s pretty well handled anything football related excellently,” Leach said. “You talk about a guy that’s had kind of a longer path than nearly everybody. And he’s taken it further than nearly everybody and so he just has to keep plugging away.”
Leach did contemplate sticking Falk back in the game at a few different juncture of Saturday’s game, and admits it would’ve been quite the comeback story had he guided the Cougars to a ‘W.’
“Boy, now that would have been a comeback there wouldn’t it, to put him back in there and manufacture all those points?” Leach said.
Falk was away from the Palouse on Monday, attending his grandfather’s funeral in Utah. Jack Falk died at the age of 88 last Tuesday.
Luke Falk will play in his last game at Martin Stadium this Saturday. Despite a few lapses at different points this season, he’s the best the Pac-12 has to offer, according to his coach.
“I think that happens to everybody, but with that said, he is the most successful quarterback in the conference and still is,” Leach said.