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Vince Grippi’s three takes: This Cougars team continues to show special qualities

PULLMAN – The signs were there before the season began. This Washington State football team could be something special.

Coming off an eight-win season that actually seemed a bit disappointing, with quarterback Luke Falk returning for his senior season, with an obviously improved defense featuring speed at most every spot, the Cougars were poised for greatness.

Then the games began.

A win over Montana State that seemed less simple than the 31-0 score would indicate. A 21-point fourth-quarter comeback needed to upend Boise State in triple overtime. A slow start but still a convincing 52-23 Pac-12 opening win over Oregon State.

All workmanlike – if not dominating.

Then Saturday happened. A winless Nevada team came to Martin Stadium for the final nonconference contest. And hardly showed up.

The Wolf Pack’s freshman quarterback Kayman Cureton, making his second career start, is pulled.

Falk passes just about every Los Angeles-based quarterback on the Pac-12’s all-time record lists for passing yards, touchdown passes and total offense.

Hercules Mata’afa more than doubles his season sack stats.

All in the first half.

Dominating isn’t the right word. It’s not strong enough. It was 35-0 at half – WSU was a four-touchdown favorite coming in – and the rout continued in the second half.

The first play out of the locker-room after the Pac-12 mandated five-minute shorter halftime was a 62-yard completion to redshirt freshman Renard Bell. The Wolf Pack actually stiffened, holding WSU to a field goal, but the reprieve was short-lived.

The 45-7 final gave the 18th-ranked Cougars their first 4-0 start since 2001, when Jason Gesser led them to wins in their first seven games and, ultimately, a 10-2 record, including a Sun Bowl victory.

One of those wins came over ninth-ranked UCLA, the last time Washington State won a regular-season game against a team ranked in single digits.

The Cougars will get another chance Friday night, when fifth-ranked USC visits Pullman fresh off a tough 30-20 road win over California.

A win in that one would be something special.

Turnovers prove vital

Forcing turnovers is the goal of every defense. But preaching taking the ball away and actually doing it, there’s the rub.

The Cougars’ defense has been special at it this season – including Saturday.

Jalen Thompson picked off two David Cornwell second-half passes and Robert Taylor had another, giving WSU 10 takeaways in four games.

How important have those been?

In defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s two-plus seasons in Pullman, the Cougars are 16-3 when forcing at least two turnovers. If the defense scores, WSU is 5-0.

That didn’t happen against Nevada, snapping the group’s two-game streak.

But the Wolf Pack didn’t have the ball much. Or move it.

When WSU subbed out most of its starters with about 6 minutes remaining, Nevada had 118 yards of total offense. And it had the ball for only 17 minutes, 26 seconds.

Falk moves up charts

Washington State Cougars quarterback Luke Falk (4) warms up before the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars quarterback Luke Falk (4) warms up before the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Jack Thompson. Mark Rypien. Drew Bledsoe. Ryan Leaf. Gesser. Alex Brink. All special quarterbacks, all represented well in the Washington State record books.

But someday we all may be telling our grandchildren we saw Falk when he was the Cougars’ quarterback.

After his 478 yards passing against the outmanned Pack, Falk not only is atop just about every WSU passing and total offense list, he’s nearing the top of the Pac-12 marks.

In passing, his 12,271 yards trails only USC’s Matt Barkley (13,327) and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion (13,600). If he continues on the same pace, Falk should reel in Mannion (13,600 yards) before October is done.

Falk, with 103, is also third in touchdown passes thrown, trailing Barkley (116) and Marcus Mariota (105). That mark should fall as well.

With his 11,977 yards of total offense, Falk also moved into the conference’s top five in that category.