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Luke Falk, O-line play key roles as Cougars look for upset of No. 8 Stanford

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 30, 2015

WSU quarterback Luke Falk he’s thrown for 16 touchdowns and averaged 7.7 yards per pass attempt over the last three games for the Cougars. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU quarterback Luke Falk he’s thrown for 16 touchdowns and averaged 7.7 yards per pass attempt over the last three games for the Cougars. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – It is extremely likely that there is causation in the correlation between Washington State’s three-game winning streak and Luke Falk’s increased efficiency at the quarterback position.

Through WSU’s first four games, Falk threw 10 touchdown passes and averaged 7.3 yards per pass attempt. In the last three he’s thrown 16 scoring passes and his average pass nets the Cougars 7.7 yards.

Keeping Falk upright and able to work is therefore of paramount importance in Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. game against Stanford. Somewhat surprisingly, that shouldn’t be too hard.

The Cardinal defense has only sacked opposing quarterbacks 10 times this season, at least four fewer than every other Pac-12 team except Oregon State, which only has nine sacks.

“Some of it is they really haven’t played too many people that throw the ball very much,” Mike Leach noted.

Even accounting for Stanford’s opposition – Leach is correct that the Cardinal have not faced any pass-first teams – the Cardinal have been surprisingly bad this year at dragging passers to the ground.

Stanford’s adjusted sack rate – a sack measure that takes the number of opponent passes into account – is ranked No. 127 among FBS teams. That’s a shocking drop in production for a team that had the nation’s No. 8 adjusted sack rate last season.

The Cougars have been hit-or-miss when it comes to blocking. Left tackle Joe Dahl has been exceptional – Pro Football Focus considers the WSU senior the nation’s best pass-blocker and wrote that he had only surrendered 12 pressures on 364 snaps prior to the Arizona game last week.

Wide receiver and running back blocking is also a point of emphasis for Leach.

“We’ll flat-out not play people if they don’t block,” Leach said. “Receivers expect people to block for them while quarterbacks are throwing them the ball, so when running backs have the ball or other receivers, they better block.”

Perhaps some of Stanford’s drop in pass-rush production can be attributed to the loss of four defensive players who were selected in last year’s NFL draft. Henry Anderson and David Parry combined for 13 sacks last season, and defensive backs Alex Carter and Jordan Richards bought more time for the team’s pass rushers by preventing wide receivers from getting open quickly after the snap.

But it’s clear that the Cardinal still has plenty of talent in its front-seven. Stanford is very good against the run and the defense ranks No. 15 nationally in adjusted line yards, a measure of how effective an offensive line is in the running game.

When opposing running backs carry the football, they are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage 11.6 percent of the time, the 12th-best rate in the country.

“If you watch the tape their pressure and productivity up front, and getting after it up front, hasn’t changed,” said offensive line coach Clay McGuire. “They’re still going to be one of, if not the best defensive lines we play. They really do a great job of attacking protections and every single one of their guys plays ball-to-the-wall until the whistle blows.”

And while Falk may not finish the game with as many bruises as other passers who have played Stanford since Jim Harbaugh turned the lackluster Stanford football program into a devastating one, he is still not going to have an easy time of it.

Despite its tepid pass rush, Stanford’s defense still ranks No. 2 in the Pac-12 in pass defense and allows opposing quarterbacks to complete just 53 percent of their passes, 20 percent fewer than Falk’s per-game average.

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