When I was a young, impressionable lad growing up in the mean streets of Northwest Spokane, there were a few players on my favorite teams who I loved above all others. Rypien, Mayes, Largent, Nash and a guy named Kenny Easley. How good was Kenny Easley? None other than Ronnie Lott said this of #45: "He was the defensive player of the year and the best player to play the safety position." Coming from the guy who many consider to be the greatest safety of all time, that is quite the compliment.
My enduring memory of Kenny Easley, besides his ferocity, is the piece of leather that he had hanging from his facemask. Easley always carried that piece of leather to remind himself that he was the toughest guy on the field, and he was right. Well, if there is one other player who deserves to tie a piece of leather to his face mask, it's the guy behind center for WSU, Luke Falk.
The guy takes hit, after hit, after hit. He keeps coming back, even if it means having to go to the locker room and pass concussion tests in order to get back out there. I've been watching football a long time, and I can recall very few guys who were as unflappable as Falk. Before we get to Falk's exploits, let's see who else stood out in WSU's victory in the Rose Bowl.
Honorable Mention: The kick coverage teams - While I'm not enterprising enough to go back and look through the statistics from every game, I'd venture to guess that this was their best performance. UCLA had only one punt return, and it became a turnover that set up WSU's second touchdown. UCLA also had five kick returns for a total of 76 yards, good for a measly 15.2-yard average.
Following kicks and punts, UCLA started on its 25, 21, 25, 6, 23, 24, 20, 4, 19 and 23 yard lines. Not giving a good team the advantage of a short field is absolutely vital if you want to beat them. The kick coverage units were a huge part of that.
2nd Runner-Up: Zach Charme
Last week, with the Cougs clinging to a 31-21 lead, they lined up in punt formation. A big punt from Mr. Charme was greatly needed. What happened instead was a punt that traveled all of six yards. If you watch the replay, Charme's foot kicked the turf so hard that a giant cloud of black pellets flew up. That was before his foot hit the ball. Had he been playing on grass, he'd have taken a divot that Phil Mickelson would have envied. It was then that I tweeted this:
Please stop letting Charme in the game.— PJ Kendall (@Deathby105) November 7, 2015
Well, as always, that's why the coaches get handsomely paid while I'm watching the game from my chair.
Last Saturday produced a different feeling entirely. Charme averaged 44.6 yards on five punts. His first punt got a good bounce and went a whopping 55 yards, flipping the field. However, that wasn't the best part of his night. Charme landed punts at the UCLA six and four yard lines, pinning them deep and giving a big lift to the defense. He also landed one at the UCLA two, which Ishmael Adams inexplicably decided to return. Nate DeRider forced a fumble, WSU recovered, and the Cougs scored to take the lead. Charme was outstanding, and hopefully he keeps it up.
1st Runner-Up: Gabe Marks
What is there to say about Mr. Marks that hasn't already been said? During the course of his 12 catches for 92 yards, he set the all-time WSU record for receptions, surpassing Michael Bumpus. In case you didn't know, WSU has had a decent receiver or two during its history.
The funniest thing about Marks is that it seems like it takes him longer to get up after being tackled than it does to get my four year-old up for school in the morning. Then, shortly after he finally gets to his feet, seemingly aching from head-to-toe, he catches another pass.
Marks also caught two touchdown passes over the course of the night. The first came when UCLA (stop me if you've heard this one) jumped offsides. To nearly everyone, including me, it looked like the defender made contact with a WSU player, which would have negated the play. It was clear that UCLA's defenders thought the same thing, because when the ball was snapped, they mostly stood still.
Well, the play wasn't blown dead, and Marks ran straight into the endzone, caught a pass and scored. There's also that little matter of catching the game-winner with three seconds left on the clock, which was an incredible grab. And no, Dave Pasch and Brian Griese, he didn't interfere with the defender, so get over it.
Winner: Luke Falk
As with Gabe Marks, we really can't say anything about Falk's remarkable play that hasn't already been said. While Falk didn't have anything close to his best statistical game, he showed guts and toughness the entire way. When he got body-slammed (on what appeared to be a quite illegal tackle) in the second quarter, and wasn't even able to make it to the sidelines, I thought he was done for a while. The hit looked that bad. I was preparing for a matchup of backup quarterbacks in Pullman next week.
That was not to be the case. Falk passed his concussion protocol "with flying colors," and was ready to go for the second half. Not only did he show immense toughness, he proved his fearlessness shortly after when he took off on a scramble up the middle. Falk got the first down and slid just in time to avoid a blatantly illegal (yet not called because Pac-12 refs) targeting foul. That drive ended in a touchdown that put the Cougars back in the lead at 21-16.
When Falk was intercepted in the end zone, followed by UCLA driving to score the go-ahead touchdown, Falk didn't flinch. Up to that point, he'd completed a pedestrian (for him) 34 of 48 passes for 264 yards, good for only 5.5 yards-per attempt. This was looking like only the second time Falk would not eclipse the (admittedly arbitrary yet oft-cited) 300-yard mark. No way, no how. Falk completed three of five passes, and lofted the beauty to Gabe Marks in the end zone. Ballgame. I don't care who had better stats this week, Falk had the best game in the conference. Congratulations, Luke.