CORVALLIS, Ore. – The uncertainty facing Washington State heading into its first game with a new quarterback, on the road, against a team that had more tangible goals at stake than the Cougars could have been enough to sink WSU.
But “Cool Hand” Luke Falk’s uncommon poise during his first start at quarterback steadied his teammates and so the Cougars were able to beat Oregon State, 39-32, and leave Corvallis with their first victory since late September.
“We knew what Luke was capable of doing,” said running back Jamal Morrow. “The confidence he plays with, the swagger he plays with, his demeanor. It all lifts us up as a team.”
Saturday was WSU’s first game after quarterback Connor Halliday broke his ankle against USC, ending a record-breaking career and two-year stint as the WSU quarterback.
Yet the Cougars never appeared rudderless, averaging 6.1 yards per play and marching down the field on their first offensive drive, which ended in Quentin Breshears’ missed 31-yard field goal.
“(Falk) plays really controlled and calm and I think, especially with the transition and our offense, that it calms our team as a whole,” coach Mike Leach said. “A lot of times, just with the dynamic of the change, it could stir people up a little but he’s got a calmness about him and demeanor that was pretty positive and made the transition pretty seamless.”
It was likely WSU’s most complete game of the season. After giving up touchdowns on their first punt of the game in two consecutive weeks WSU allowed just two punt return yards in the entire game on Saturday.
The defense allowed just 37 opposing rushing yards and completed three three-and-outs.
And the run game was fine, especially in the first half, even with No. 2 running back Gerard Wicks out with an illness and No. 3 back Theron West suffering an injury early in the game.
Jamal Morrow gained 46 yards on nine rushes, and added another 51 on nine receptions.
The Cougars were without one of their top receivers on Saturday with River Cracraft not making the trip to Oregon. But in his place Tyler Baker provided Falk with the same safety net that Cracraft gave Halliday, tying for the team lead with nine receptions for 113 yards.
The two established a rapport as walk-ons in fall camp, often staying late after practice to help each other get to the point where they can make an impact.
“There were times when me and Luke weren’t getting a whole lot of reps,” Baker said. “So we would stay out there and stay after and that really helped our chemistry.”
An early 10-0 deficit threatened to knock the Cougars out early, just as Arizona and USC had jumped out to early leads over WSU the last two weeks. But Falk completed 19 of 25 passes in the first half, throwing for 251 yards and three touchdowns despite a pair of passes thrown out of bounds and a drop.
“I think coming into the game a lot of people’s emotions were high and they’re thinking too much,” said linebacker Kache Palacio. “After the first drive people got to the sideline and calmed down as we got it together and took the next drive and made plays.”
Falk led the Cougars to touchdowns on their final two full drives of the first half and staked his team to a 21-16 lead heading into the locker room. He finished having completed 44 of 61 passes for 471 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
No other WSU quarterback has ever thrown for more yards or touchdowns in his first start.
He even manufactured a comeback, leading consecutive touchdown drives to reclaim the upper hand after OSU took a 25-24 lead in the fourth quarter.
He wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty darn good for a guy who enrolled last season without a scholarship, as the No. 2 quarterback in his own recruiting class. He showed poise postgame as well, claiming blame and deflecting praise.
“I missed a few reads as coach Leach pointed out – I don’t know if you guys saw that – but fortunately we came up on top,” Falk said. “I thought the offensive line did a great job, the guys did a great job getting open. It was a great team win.”
Halliday’s arm strength will be missed and Falk doesn’t yet have the same command of the Air Raid offense or quick release on his passes. But he extends plays by rolling out of the pocket and going to his fourth or fifth receiver – as was the case on a 20-yard pass to Isiah Myers – and by running at the right moments.
“That’s really more important than being a fast guy,” Leach said. “There’s a lot of fast guys that are bad at it and Luke, by quarterback standards, is kind of medium speed.”
And the WSU pass-rush finally made life hard for an opposing quarterback. Sean Mannion completed 31 of 41 passes for 419 yards. But he threw for just one touchdown and it came on OSU’s first drive of the game.
Mannion was sacked four times, two of them were by Palacio, and WSU’s pressure caused the Beavers to convert on just four of 12 third-down opportunities.
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