BY Art Thiel 11:25PM 12/28/2017

Thiel: Cougs lose big without Falk — and with him

With QB Luke Falk sidelined, the Cougars ended a tumultuous month with a blowout loss to Michigan State that looked like the Apple Cup. But at least Leach got a raise out of it.

Mike Leach’s bowl record at WSU fell to 1-3. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

A tumultuous month for Washington State football that began with a blowout in the Apple Cup ended with a blowout in the Holiday Bowl Thursday night in San Diego, a 42-17 pasting from 16th-ranked Michigan State (10-3) that proved the 18th-ranked Cougars can lose without QB Luke Falk as easily as they can lose with him.

The game was over sometime in the past week when Falk’s mysteriously injured left, non-throwing, hand made him highly unlikely to play, even if coach Mike Leach hid the fact as if it were a stolen Rembrandt.

Falk warmed up in uniform, but was declared out just before the game, with sophomore Tyler Hilinski forced into his first start. In the pre-game press conference Wednesday, Leach finally acknowledged what everyone was seeing: Falk was wearing some kind of cast.

“He has had something on his hand all year,” Leach said. “Hence, we gave him the nickname the Kingslayer. Beyond that, you’re on your own.”

Whatever that meant. After the game, Leach finally acknowledged the coaches knew Falk wasn’t going to play.

“I guess we had a sense of it, yeah, which is unfortunate for what he’s done here,” he said. “We have to look out for what’s in his best interests, and the best interests of players.”

Without their leader — WSU’s all-time winningest quarterback who broke Oregon Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota’s Pac-12 record for career total offense — the Cougars were exposed early and often. Hilinski was 39 of 50 for 272 yards but had an interception and a fumble, and had no running game to help him. WSU rushed eight times for 24 yards.

Also missing were two other  key offensive players, WRs Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack. The top-producing receivers with 70 and 60 catches, respectively, asked out of the program earlier in the month. Grumpily, Leach granted their requests, leaving a big void of experienced talent.

The best player on defense, DT Hercules Mata’afa, had to sit out a first-half suspension following a helmet-to-helmet hit on Huskies QB Jake Browning in the Apple Cup, which was a similar rout, 41-14, although Falk played all of that one.

By the time Mata’afa took the field, the Cougars were down 21-3 on the way to a 35-3 deficit that came after touchdowns on five consecutive Spartans possessions. MSU had 440 yards of total offense, led by sophomore QB Brian Lewerke, who lit up the alleged Speed D with explosive plays, completing 13 of 21 for 213 yards and three touchdowns.

The Cougars lost a second straight Holiday Bowl to a Big 10 Conference foe. Last year’s 17-12 defeat at the hands of woebegone Minnesota was another study in offensive futility. Counting the past two years of Apple Cups and bowls, the Air Raid offense has managed 60 points in those four games.

Leach attributed the season-ending fall-offs to the consequences of being part of the Pac-12 Conference.

“I do think we have a very tough conference,” he said. “When you get body-punched through the year, I think that has a cumulative effect.”

After starting 6-0, the Cougars lost four of the season’s final seven, the final pair resoundingly. All defeats were by at least 21 points, which Leach attributed to the risk-taking nature of the offense.

“Don’t gauge the losses by point (margins),” he said. “You have to take chances to win games. We’re not one of those teams that is going to win at the finish line by keeping it as close as we can. Some sort of style points if it’s closer . . . that’s pointless.

“The point is to win the game, so we’re going to take chances that potentially could hurt us. There’s a cost. You lose by more points.”

So Leach is blaming the blowout defeats on the toughness of the conference and the absence of sufficient manpower on the roster. But apparently the handicaps weren’t enough to have him refuse the offer a couple of weeks ago from WSU president Kirk Schulz to extend his contract to 2022, worth up to $20 million.

After the Apple Cup defeat, his fourth in a row, Leach apparently entertained an offer to coach Tennessee, and was rumored for the coaching vacancies at Nebraska and Oregon. All three would appear to be in tough conferences, but perhaps he could have recruited higher caliber players there so he wouldn’t have to take so many risks.

But give Leach credit for getting WSU regularly bowl-eligible, even if he is 1-3 in those bowls with his emaciated roster made worse by a couple of players who wanted out. The roster despair apparently is why the odds flipped — Michigan State went from a 4½-point underdog when the matchup was announced to a 1½-point favorite on game day.

And now defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, given much credit for making his side of the ball credible the past three years, is reported ready to accept an unspecified assistant’s job at Ohio State.

Presumably, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer has already accepted the excuse of WSU’s defensive helplessness against Michigan State as a consequence of playing in a tough conference. Hey, it worked to get Leach a raise.



  • Husky73

    “Whatever that means”…….the obtuse Mike Leach.

    • wabubba67

      That was actually written by Art, not said by Leach. The Kingslayer nickname is a Game of Thrones reference… I would take it to mean that Falk’s hand was pretty much useless (the character actually had his cut off in a sword fight…though it was his dominant hand; not the case with Falk.)

      God help me, I’m actually starting to understand Leachisms.

      • jafabian

        I have for the most part because I grew up on Jim Walden.

        • Husky73

          Only Paul Sorensen was worse behind a mic than Jim Walden. With Sorensen, it was ALWAYS the referee’s fault, and the Cougs were ALWAYS getting jobbed. I don’t know how Bob Robertson put up with him.

      • art thiel

        Appreciate the pop culture update. Not a GOT watcher. I already spend too much TV time watching games.

  • coug73

    Michigan State flat out kicked the Cougs butts. MS hit harder, blocked better and played with a chip on their shoulder. To say the Cougs played soft is an understatement. Kicked to the curb the Cougs looked hapless. The Leach carnival entertains some fans, but give me a running game, a 3 point stance, receivers who want the ball. Cougs All PAC 12 linemen, some All American, where dominated at the line of scrimmage. Leach has his football team to play with, he could learn some old tricks or his fantasy football Air Raid teams will continue to be a football oddity. Leach can coach a team into one of 64 bowl games but disappoint seems to be right around the corner.

    • art thiel

      The Air Raid is a system deployed by teams of lesser talent and size to even the odds by emphasizing speed, quickness and misdirection. It can make mediocre teams successful, but in a Power 5 conference, it has a low ceiling.

  • Will Ganschow

    What is Leaches buy out in his contract? Key point for me.

    • art thiel

      Whatever it is, he and his new school will afford it.

  • TheDrake

    Falk’s a loser. He rarely wins the big game. Spends 5 years in that godforsaken university and then let’s everyone down, teammates, community, university because of a “so called” injury on his nonthrowing hand. Cmon he pulled himself out to not risk injury for a pro career that i am confident will never be much. That my friends is a definition of a loser.
    The Spartan QB got pummeled a few times. He got his bell rung. But he was still willing to come in to the 4th quarter to nail down the win. That my friends is a definition of a winner. Falk’s a loser. Darn I am going to miss him at next year’s Apple Cup.

    • art thiel

      Thank you, doctor, for reporting on your medical exam of Falk. You’re the first to disclose publicly your knowledge.

      Also good that you called out all QBs who leave the game with concussion systems as sissies and losers. Thanks for the reminder that the macho imperative is what will make football great again, the hell with a player’s health future.

      • TheDrake

        Art! Did you read my email!?! Your not even close to understanding what I am saying. Not once did I “call out QBs who leave the game with concussion as sissies and losers.” I said Falk was a loser because he stepped out with a bad nonthrowing hand. And I stand by that. A lot of QB’s have played with worst. It’s his last game of his career because he certainly isn’t going anywhere in the NFL. Oh wait my mistake he can play in Canada (smirk). Cmon ART! I paid 150.00 bucks this year because as a lifelong Seattle resident who actually subscribed to the Seattle PI whenit was a newspaper back in the day I valued your excellent writing. But you gotta read the emails accurately for god’s sakes. I will take your apology off air. Thanks.

    • DB

      I suppose beating USC and Stanford doesn’t count in your assessment of big games. I remember reading something similar about Tom Brady when he came out of Michigan. ‘Not athletic enough’, ‘poor scrambling ability’, ‘skinny’, ‘loser’, etc. I won’t be a bit surprised if Falk goes to New England in the mid to late rounds. Accurate throws and the touch to drop passes over linebackers are a premium in the NFL. Brady gets beaten only when he faces a strong pass rush. The same has been mostly true for Falk.

      WSU’s weakness all season was their small D-line. They were very vulnerable to a team that was willing to commit to running the ball between the tackles and playing the time-of-possession game. Stanford wasn’t smart enough to do this, even though they had the O-line and backs for it. Washington was smart enough. Michigan State took note and got the same result.

      • TheDrake

        Good comments DB, (certainly better than Art’s) but he is no Tom Brady. Look at his stats this year and compare them with his 2015 and 2016 stats and you see a declining trend and additionally against a mediocre PAC12 this year (see the 2017 PAC12 bowl record).

        I am thinking that he is the beneficiary of Leach’s so called Air-Raid offense that gives Falk better stats than he deserves. A good college QB nothing more. Won’t do anything in the NFL.

        I should amend my comments to say he couldn’t win big games on the road (Arizona, Cal! and of course UW) playing at home against USC and Stanford helped him.

        He would have made a lot of Cougars proud if he went out and played his final game with a nonthrowing hand injury.

        • DB

          I think Art was mostly noting that none of us really knows the extent of the injury, but I get your point. For me, Falk has shown plenty of toughness in his career. As far as Brady vs Falk, I’d agree that Falk has benefited from throwing more than Brady did at Michigan in terms of total yards, etc. Having said that, Brady had a 61.9 completion % as a Junior and 61% as a Senior. Falk is 70% and 66.9% respectively. Brady was 14/10 and 16/6 on TD/Ints. Falk was 38/11 and 30/13. Brady’s ratings for the final 2 years were 133 and 138. Falk was 145 and 137. (I think) Falk’s numbers declined as a Senior because the Cougs ran the ball a lot more. -Which is also why they won more. We’ll see what he does in the pros. You might be right. A lot has to do with where a guy goes. Wilson probably wouldn’t have gotten the chance to start if he hadn’t been drafted by the Seahawks, and we can only wonder what Alex Smith might have done without having to learn a different offensive system every year at SFO.

  • jafabian

    I strongly believed that Coach Leach would follow former WSU AD Bill Moos to Nebraska and the school would just promote as assistant to head coach and they’d slowly spiral into a six year pit of losing seasons, because that’s what they do. Keeping Leach will help keep at least the football program on the winning track and eventually better recruiting. I was rooting for the Cougars (not easy when you bleed purple but I root for the PAC-12) but you don’t have as many players missing, including your starting QB, and be expected to compete with a program like the Spartans. The PAC-12 isn’t having a good bowl season.

    • art thiel

      Pac12 is 1-5 in bowls ahead of tonight’s Cotton Bowl. Mediocre season overall. Regarding Leach, I’m not sure he’s comfortable at a mega-program like Nebraska where the entire state’s identity is wrapped up in the football team. WSU is a better fit for a guy who has trouble being accountable.

    • Husky73

      Would a Yankee fan EVER root for the Red Sox?

      • jafabian

        Depends who they’re playing and the circumstances of course! During the season it helps the Huskies if the teams they beat win to help their strength of schedule. During bowl season I’ll root for the PAC-12 because I want recruits to go West. Getting tired of the SEC dominating recruiting.

  • rosetta_stoned

    “I do think we have a very tough conference,”

    1-8 in this year’s bowl games says otherwise.