CORVALLIS, OR. – Question Mike Leach’s coaching decisions all you want. The constant passing. The fourth-down gambles. The freshmen taken off redshirt status after being activated late in a season that is going nowhere.
Even Leach’s most devoted admirers admit that some of his decisions can be debated long and hard. No one, however, should ever debate Leach’s merits as the guru of the forward pass.
Leach’s offensive mastery was demonstrated again Saturday when redshirt freshman Luke Falk made his first start and torched Oregon State for 471 yards and five touchdowns in a 39-32 WSU victory.
“He played real controlled and calm,” Leach said. In other words, Falk reflected the demeanor Leach displayed all week after national passing leader Connor Halliday went down in a heap with a season-ending ankle/lower-leg injury the past Saturday against USC.
To hear Leach tell it, he fully expected Falk to play brilliantly with 44,000 fans cheering on the Pac-12’s second-ranked passing defense at Reser Stadium.
“A lot of times,” Leach said, “this dynamic with the (quarterback) change stirs up people a little bit. He’s got a calmness about him on the field. Just his demeanor, which I think was very positive. It made the transition very seamless.”
Falk’s sensational debut offered even more proof that Leach’s passing attack – perennially ranked among the nation’s best – is virtually unstoppable when executed correctly. Falk completed 44 of 61 passes, with no interceptions. Five of the nine Cougars who caught passes wound up in the end zone.
Falk lacks the howitzer of an arm that Halliday possesses, but Falk’s right arm is plenty strong, and he’s far more agile than Halliday.
Falk and Halliday have developed a strong friendship during their two years together. Falk paid tribute to his injured buddy by delivering a Halliday-like performance.
“I took on a new role,” Falk said, “but I’ve seen Connor do such a good job with it, I kind of modeled myself after him this week.”
Good idea, young fella. Falk, who did not go on scholarship until this fall, passed for more yards and touchdowns than any QB in his starting debut in WSU history. Falk had thrown two passes all season before performing admirably last week after Halliday went down, but no one seemed surprised how masterfully the Logan, UT., native operated the offense on a chilly afternoon in Corvallis.
“We knew what Luke is capable of,” running back Jamal Morrow said.
“He’s doing very, very well,” defensive lineman Xavier Cooper said. “All that is practice habits and him working hard. Luke’s a hard worker.”
Leach said WSU coaches recruited Falk believing “he was this good” in terms of physical skill. It is Falk’s poise that Leach finds to be “the biggest thing that’s ahead of schedule.”
“He’s cool, calm and collected,” wide receiver Tyler Baker said. “He never gets too high or too low.”
“Luke’s a very confident person . . . (and) he knows the offense really well,” center Riley Sorenson said. “He studies film more than anyone I know.”
Halliday is recovering from surgery back home in Spokane, but his presence was felt among teammates in Corvallis. Several Cougars had “CH12” written somewhere – on skin, tape, wraps – as a tribute to Halliday and his No. 12 jersey.
“After last week,” Sorenson said, “we said, ‘You know what? We’ve got to go win these last three games for Connor, because it’s just sad how his career ended. These last three games are to honor him.’”
“We were playing for Connor,” Morrow confirmed. “It sucks that we won’t have him as a leader, so we went out and played for him.”
Falk completed passes long, short and in between, under pressure or with plenty of time. He scrambled expertly when necessary.
“He’s very good at buying time in the pocket and knowing when to take off,” Leach said.
So brilliant was Falk that his team’s overall performance was somewhat lost in the shuffle. Linebacker Kache Palacio said Saturday’s game “by far” represents WSU’s most complete game this season.
“Definitely,” Cooper said.
“Yeah . . . all cylinders,” Falk said.
The Cougars trailed 10-0 early before Falk threw his first touchdown pass. Washington State’s much-maligned defense and special teams came alive, and Falk – who, like Halliday, has the final say on all play calls – mixed the run and pass impressively.
Baker, a redshirt junior walk-on who caught nine passes each of the past two games, pushed WSU ahead for the first time at 14-10 when he hauled in a Falk TD pass early in the second quarter. The Cougars led the rest of the way except for a one-point deficit early in the fourth quarter, which Falk quickly erased with a TD strike to Dom Williams.
“We finished,” Falk said proudly. “That was the big key (emphasis) in the offseason. We finally finished this weekend.”
Falk’s 471 passing yards are a season high against the Beavers, who had been yielding just 202.5 passing yards per game.
“We expected him to be good,” Oregon State senior linebacker D.J. Alexander said.
Unfortunately for the Beavers, Falk lived up to their expectations. He outplayed all-time conference passing leader Sean Mannion (417 passing yards and one touchdown) and helped the Cougars climb out of the North Division cellar by pushing Oregon State into the basement. WSU snapped a four-game losing streak and extended the Beavers’ losing skein to four.
The Cougars (3-7, 2-5 Pac-12) have a bye, then finish the season at No. 11 Arizona State Nov. 22 and at home against Washington Nov. 29. Falk says he doesn’t give a hoot what his statistics are as long as the victory total keeps rising.
“The only number I wanted (Saturday) is the one win,” he said. “It’s the most important stat.”