The Washington State football team is on quite a roll.
The Cougars have won six consecutive games, are ranked in the No. 8 in the latest AP poll, and have a quarterback that could be in the Heisman conversation.
And it all started with a loss to Portland State back in 2015.
So claims Luke Falk. The Cougars’ quarterback and offense went silent during the first game of the 2015 season, and Portland State hung a 24-17 loss on the Cougars at home.
That could have knocked the program off the rails, but it didn’t, Falk said.
“We reset,” Falk said. “There was nothing we could have done about that game. It was in the past.”
The Cougars played at Rutgers next, and Falk threw for 478 yards and four touchdowns in a comeback victory.
Since that loss, the Cougars have gone 23-8.
“We still have rough patches,” Falk said. “But we’ve hit our step and hit our stride and played with confidence.”
The senior is threatening to break nearly every major passing record in the Pac-12 Conference – surpassing names like Marcus Mariota, Matt Barkley, Jared Goff and Sean Mannion.
Through the first six games of this season, Falk has thrown for 2,000 yards with 19 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He is completing 71.8 percent of his passes. He has thrown for 12,893 yards with 108 touchdowns for his college career, setting school records for career TD passes, passing yardage and total offense. Falk is tied with Jason Gesser as the winningest quarterback in program history with 24 victories.
Falk also already holds Pac-12 records for pass completions and total plays and is the NCAA active leader in passing yards and touchdowns. He is closing on Pac-12 career touchdown leader Matt Barkley of USC, who threw for 116.
“He’s a special talent,” Oregon coach Willie Taggart said. “He’s a kid who'll be playing on Sunday.”
Despite such accolades and ongoing Heisman talk, Falk remains a small-town boy who seems to fit in well in Pullman, which has only 30,000 residents – two-thirds of them Washington State students. He remains humble and approachable. He pauses to take selfies with fans. He still wears a battered baseball cap he bought his first day on campus.
He’s even drawn the admiration of Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
“Their quarterback is so good,” Carroll said recently. “We’ve been watching them for years and just watching him pull himself off the carpet so many times after getting pounded, and just hanging in there. He’s a fantastic football player.”
Falk follows a long line of great quarterbacks to make their way through Pullman, a list that includes Jack Thompson, Mark Rypien, Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf and Gesser. Yet none of them were asked to run a system as intricate as Mike Leach’s, which is why the coach regularly praises his quarterback for his smarts and comprehension.
“He’s a constant achiever,” Leach said.
ANOTHER SHORT WEEK
For the second time in three weeks, the Cougars are part of an ESPN vehicle on Friday night, meaning they must accelerate their preparation and delay their NCAA-mandated rest day until Saturday.
According to coaches and players, the Cougars were already mentally gearing up for the challenge as they traveled to the Portland airport Saturday night after the Oregon game.
“We enjoyed the win but we knew it was a short week and we had to take care of business,” Falk said. “So it was kind of erased from our memory pretty quick. I think guys moved on to this game faster than I’ve seen them move on to any other.”
Leach noticed the extra focus during a light practice Sunday night.
“We try to push that,” the coach said. “I don’t know if I felt it leaving the stadium – I was a little preoccupied with a bunch of stuff. But I definitely felt it last night, well before we went out on the field.”
Early in the Oregon game, though, the Cougars needed to calm down a bit, Leach said.
“I thought it was a very hard-played game,” he said. “There was an adjustment to that game too, at least by us and probably by Oregon as well. Basically, everybody goes out there, and there’s a bunch of intensity and stuff like that, a little bit out of control, and then I think we got in control first on defense, which you typically do.
“Offensively, I thought the more consistent Luke (Falk) got, the more consistent we got. And I thought that built as the game went on. But it was still kind of an explosive game, because we were playing extremely hard and they (the Ducks) are fast guys running around all over the place.”