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Looking back: Top 10 moments of Washington State’s 2017 football season

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 9, 2018, 8:22 p.m.

Washington State defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa, quarterback Luke Falk and coach Mike Leach. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa, quarterback Luke Falk and coach Mike Leach. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A victory in the Holiday Bowl eluded the 2017 Washington State football team, but the Cougars nonetheless went to the postseason for the fourth time in five years and compiled a 9-4 record while nabbing a few signature victories.

Here’s a look back at some of the best moments from the Cougars’ season:

Washington State Cougars wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. (8) hauls in a pass from Luke Falk for a touchdown against Oregon State Beavers cornerback Kyle White (27) during the first half of a PAC-12 football game on Saturday, September 19, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. (8) hauls in a pass from Luke Falk for a touchdown against Oregon State Beavers cornerback Kyle White (27) during the first half of a PAC-12 football game on Saturday, September 19, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

10. Belle Glade WRs light up Oregon State

The outside receivers from rural Florida were a handful for the Beavers’ maligned secondary on a warm mid-September afternoon in Pullman. Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack came to WSU with designs on recreating their highly-productive prep days at William T. Dwyer High in Palm Beach Gardens, and the two combined to make 19 catches for 273 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Martin Jr. caught 10 balls for 194 yards and three of those TDs, while Johnson-Mack chipped in nine catches for 79 yards and two scores.

Said Martin Jr., “That was the fun part about it. He gets his share of the wealth, I get my share of the wealth.”

Washington State great Riley Sorenson raises his team's flag as girlfriend Elisabeth Haffner looks before the start of the season opener against Montana State during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, September 2, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State great Riley Sorenson raises his team's flag as girlfriend Elisabeth Haffner looks before the start of the season opener against Montana State during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, September 2, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

9. Sorenson raises flag

Just one day after finishing his final round of chemotherapy treatment, Riley Sorenson returned to a familiar haven: Martin Stadium. Over the course of his senior season, the standout center received an outpour of support from WSU fans, many of whom were touched by the story of a player that was diagnosed with testicular cancer not long after losing both of his parents. Sorenson became a beacon of hope for the WSU community and beat the disease for a second time. He was invited to raise the Cougar flag prior to the season opener vs. Montana State.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Sorenson said.

Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa (50) battles Colorado during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, October 21, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa (50) battles Colorado during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, October 21, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

8. Bobcats, Buffs blanked

The strides made under third-year coordinator Alex Grinch were evident all season, but the Cougars were lights-out on Sept. 2 in the opener against MSU and again on Oct. 21 in a rain-soaked Pac-12 battle vs. Colorado. WSU hadn’t posted a shutout since 2013 (vs. Idaho), and not since 1981 had there been multiple in the same season. The Cougars won those games by a combined score of 59-0, allowed 317 combined yards of offense and gave up just 20 first downs. The Bobcats and Buffaloes were also a combined 2-of-28 on third down.

Washington State Cougars place kicker Erik Powell (46) reacts after sinking a kick during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, October, 2017, at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. WSU won the game 33-10. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars place kicker Erik Powell (46) reacts after sinking a kick during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, October, 2017, at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. WSU won the game 33-10. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

7. Powell’s comeback season

What a difference a year makes.

After opening his junior season with five misses – and making just 9-of-15 field goals altogether – a refurbished Erik Powell returned in 2017 to have one of the best seasons in history by a WSU kicker. Three times this year, Powell was named the Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week, and he’d finish his senior season with 20 makes on 24 attempts. Against USC, he slotted all three of his FGs (44, 33, 32) and hit the game-winner to upset the No. 5 Trojans. The next week at Oregon, he was responsible for 15 of the 33 points scored in an Autzen Stadium rout of the Ducks, making all four kicks. Later in the season, he struck a personal-best 56-yard bomb in WSU’s loss at Arizona.

Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa (50) brings down Utah Utes running back Jordan Howard (20) during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, November 11, 2017, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa (50) brings down Utah Utes running back Jordan Howard (20) during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, November 11, 2017, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

6. Herculean effort in Utah

Washington State’s defense created seven turnovers at Rice-Eccles Stadium and defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa spent all night chasing down Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley. Mata’afa dropped Huntley for three sacks, racked up five tackles-for-loss and tied Jahad Wood for the team lead in total tackles (8). In the first half, he squashed Huntley on a blind-side hit and stripped the ball away from the Utah QB for a forced fumble and fumble recovery.

“I was able to get some one-on-one blocks,” Mata’afa said, “and I had to utilize that to the best of my ability.”

Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa (50) reacts after he stopped Stanford Cardinal running back Bryce Love (20) during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, November 4, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU led 14-7 at the half. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa (50) reacts after he stopped Stanford Cardinal running back Bryce Love (20) during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, November 4, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU led 14-7 at the half. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

5. Mr. Consensus

Many thought Mata’afa’s junior season was worthy of Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. The Lahaina, Hawaii, native fell short of that distinction, but his season was not short of accolades. The Walter Camp Foundation, Associated Press and Sporting News all recognized the D-tackle as a First Team All-American, making Mata’afa the first defensive consensus All-American for WSU since Rien Long in 2002. The Associated Press named him the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and he was voted an All-Pac-12 AP first teamer … at two positions: defensive tackle and defensive end.

Washington State quarterback Luke Falk (4) throws a pass as he is chased by Stanford linebacker Peter Kalambayi (34) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017. (Young Kwak / AP)
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk (4) throws a pass as he is chased by Stanford linebacker Peter Kalambayi (34) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017. (Young Kwak / AP)

4. Falk drives Cougs past Stanford

Luke Falk engineered one of his all-time drives to beat Stanford on Senior Day, keep hopes for a Pac-12 title alive and conclude a perfect 7-0 season at Martin Stadium. The 25th-ranked Cougars trailed the 18th-ranked Cardinal by four points in the fourth quarter. From the shadow of WSU’s goal line, James Williams chugged forward for 12 yards and a first down, but Falk absorbed a sack on the next play and had to throw away on second down. On third-and-long, Falk sat coolly in the pocket and waited for Tay Martin’s route to develop before stepping into a pass to the freshman wideout. That moved the chains and Falk completed four more passes before hitting Jamire Calvin for an 11-yard touchdown to essentially seal the win.

“In my mind, play of the year is that third-and-14,” said Voice of the Cougars Matt Chazanow.

Washington State Cougars quarterback Luke Falk (4) embraces Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Nick Begg (89) after defeating Stanford during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, November 4, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 24-21. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars quarterback Luke Falk (4) embraces Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Nick Begg (89) after defeating Stanford during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, November 4, 2017, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 24-21. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

3. Record breaker

For Falk, becoming the Pac-12’s career passing leader was not so much a matter of if, but when. The record held by former Oregon State QB Sean Mannion finally went down in the home finale against Stanford. WSU’s fourth-year starter went to one of his favorite targets, running back Jamal Morrow, for an 8-yard completion to break Mannion’s record – set over four years – of 13,600 yards. The only Pac-12 QB with more than 14,000 yards, Falk finishes his college career with 14,481 yards and also holds conference/WSU records for total offense (14,086), passing touchdowns (119), pass completions (357), pass attempts (534) and total plays (2,306).

In this Sept. 9, 2017 file photo, Washington State Cougars quarterback Tyler Hilinski (3) is mobbed by teammates after WSU defeated Boise State in triple overtime on at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
In this Sept. 9, 2017 file photo, Washington State Cougars quarterback Tyler Hilinski (3) is mobbed by teammates after WSU defeated Boise State in triple overtime on at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

2. Hilinski’s heroics

The Cougars were headed for an embarrassing home loss, trailing Boise State 31-10 on an off-night for Falk, when Mike Leach handed the keys over to Tyler Hilinski. The backup’s first drive culminated with a bad interception. Hilinski was close to flawless after that. A 17-yard touchdown pass to Calvin made it 31-17, Peyton Pelluer pitched in a pick-six to make it a one-possession game and Hilinski dumped off to Morrow for the game-tying score. The Cougars and Broncos traded blows in overtime, but BSU settled for a field goal in the third frame and Hilinski drove WSU to the end zone, linking up with Morrow for a 22-yard touchdown pass to seal the comeback win after midnight.

“It was 31-10 … and Jamire (Calvin) came up to me and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to come back and win this game,’” Morrow said. “… It’s a testament to our team, how well we fight.”

Washington State fans and players celebrate after the Cougars defeated No. 5 USC Friday. The Pac-12 assessed a $25,000 fine to WSU for rushing the field following the game. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State fans and players celebrate after the Cougars defeated No. 5 USC Friday. The Pac-12 assessed a $25,000 fine to WSU for rushing the field following the game. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

1. Cougars stun No. 5 Trojans

With quarterback Sam Darnold and a collection of former five-star recruits in tow, USC came to Pullman bearing a No. 5 ranking and looking like a team that could contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. More than 30 NFL scouts poured into the Martin Stadium press box to see the quarterbacks and it was WSU’s signal-caller who prevailed, completing 34-for-51 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns. Jahad Woods pinned Darnold in the backfield on USC’s final play, jarring the ball loose for Derek Moore to recover.

Mike Leach famously compared the postgame scene to Woodstock – “Except everybody’s got their clothes on,” he told ESPN’s Neil Everett.

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