TUCSON, Ariz. – The Washington State method for winning football games is neither pretty nor safe.
But darn if it isn’t effective.
Once again the Cougars built an early lead. And again they muddled around for most of the second half, placed their fate in quarterback Luke Falk’s hands and were rewarded, this time with a 45-42 victory on Saturday at Arizona that leaves them one win shy of bowl eligibility.
WSU (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) has won four games in such fashion, including all three in its current winning streak. That 3-0 stretch includes road wins over UA and Oregon, the two participants in last year’s Pac-12 championship game.
“Every game this season it feels like we’re talking about ‘this is the game,’ but I guess when you’re winning, every game the pressure gets higher and higher,” WSU wide receiver Gabe Marks said. “This is definitely the biggest win, I feel, this year. Every game we’re just solidifying ourselves and showing ourselves and anyone else that we’re the team that we thought we were, that we think they are.”
The Cougars led by 17 points in the middle of the third quarter. But when WSU started a drive from its 24-yard line with eight minutes left in the game, it was grasping onto a 38-35 lead against a team that had suddenly found offensive life.
Falk’s ensuing drive was the necessary blend of efficient and time-consuming. None of the first seven plays gained fewer than 7 yards. A 21-yard pass to Kyrin Priester – the talented sophomore had his breakout game – was the longest, allowing the Cougars to bleed 5:58 off the clock.
“He’s very calm and cool under pressure. I thought that was good,” WSU head coach Mike Leach said of Falk. “I thought we could have scored some of those touchdowns before we found ourselves in a pressure situation. I mean, if we do all those same things a little earlier, we’ve got a chance to knock them out.”
But that wouldn’t be the WSU way these days.
The drive culminated with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Marks. Quite a few members of the talented WSU receiving corps could have caught the ball, but the fiery and introspective receiver caught the three touchdown passes that built WSU’s lead, so it was only right that he catch the one to solidify it.
Marks had eight catches for 97 yards in the best game of his career, which came on the same field as his worst. The last time the Cougars played in Tucson – notably picking up their fifth win of 2013 season – Marks was held without a catch for the only time.
The fourth touchdown bought the Cougars just enough time to hold off the surging Wildcats, who were making up ground just as quickly as their backup quarterback’s legs could carry them.
UA coach Rich Rodriguez pulled starter Anu Solomon – who led only two touchdown drives – midway through the third quarter and inserted Jerard Randall, who promptly ripped off 59 yards on a quarterback keeper. The Wildcats did not score on that drive, but Randall took them to the end zone on his next two series, breaking up the WSU defense with his speed and emotionally firing up his offense in the process.
“People talk about all these quarterbacks that can run. Well, that kid can really run,” Leach said. “All a ‘quarterback who can run’ seems to mean nowadays is a guy’s faster than 4.9 (seconds in the 40-yard-dash), you know? All of a sudden if a kid’s 4.8, ‘Oh, gee, he can run. He’s a running quarterback.’ Well, this kid’s a lot faster. This kid really can run.”
But not even Randall was fast enough for the clock after the Wildcats’ final touchdown. UA tried an onside kick, which WSU receiver Dom Williams recovered, and the game ended with the Cougars in victory formation after achieving one last first down.
To hold off UA at the end of the game, the Cougars first had to give themselves some breathing room. WSU scored a touchdown on each of its first two drives while holding the Wildcats to just one first down during their two initial opportunities.
The Cougars tested the inexperienced Wildcats linebackers over the middle with a series of mesh plays, sending two receivers over the middle in intersecting routes. River Cracraft continually found soft spots in the defense for big gains.
“He’s good at finding the zone, finding the weak spot in the defense,” Falk said.
Marks took a screen pass 6 yards, powering his way into the end zone for the game’s first score.
The Wildcats also stuck with what they know during the game’s initial drives, but WSU’s defense shut down the staple runs by Nick Wilson, the Pac-12’s No. 4 rusher.
“I thought that was huge,” Leach said. “I thought that was a very big part of the game, even though it was early.”
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