Football can be a heartbreaking sport because of its sometimes debilitating injuries, but since a team still needs to field 11 players in order to satisfy the demands of the rulebook, one person's misfortune is always going to be another person's opportunity.
And that is exactly where WSU quarterback Luke Falk finds himself in the wake of Connor Halliday's misfortune.
There was always going to be a battle to replace Halliday between Falk, redshirting freshman Peyton Bender and incoming freshman Tyler Hilinski. It just didn't figure to play out until the spring, when Halliday had moved on to preparing for the NFL draft. That battle now gets an early start.
Some have characterized this as an audition for Falk, but I'm not sure I agree with that. Maybe it's just semantics, but I think that implies an opportunity to get a grip on the job that can't be broken, and I don't believe that Falk can win the 2015 starting job over the next three games.
But he'll obviously be adding to the data points Leach will use to evaluate these three before anointing Halliday's successor. And in that respect, we can all learn a lot of things about Falk's ability to quarterback at the Pac-12 level that we wouldn't have known otherwise.
We got our first peek on Saturday. He ended up throwing the ball 57 times for 370 yards, and while the yards per attempt (6.5) were fairly pedestrian by Air Raid standards, it actually was one of the better days by anyone against USC. Even Mike Leach -- MIKE LEACH -- said he thought Falk played well. Let's take a look back at the performance in order to get better acquainted with 2015 Quarterback Candidate Number 1.
Let's start off by focusing on some of the better decisions and throws by Falk, beginning with this one in Falk's second drive on 2nd-and-8:
This is an early sign of the poise that is going to become a running theme through these plays. He works through a progression, and although it looks like the outside receiver at the top might have come open with the safety vacating the hashmark, Falk decides to go someplace safe with the ball rather than force it into a place he's uncomfortable with. Jamal Morrow picks up five, and now the Cougs are in a 3rd-and-manageable.
Now we're into the second quarter. This is a fairly routine throw, and on first look, it might appear that he didn't get it to Baker right on the money:
But I actually think he was throwing it to a spot where the defender didn't have a chance to make a play on the ball. Solid play on 2nd-and-13 to again get into 3rd-and-manageable, seen here:
No, Vince Mayle didn't catch the ball. But the throw -- from the far hash -- on the 10-yard out was right on the money. While Falk's arm might not be on par with Halliday's, it was strong enough to make this throw that probably was a little more difficult than Falk made it look.
Let's move on to the third quarter for the crown jewel throw of the day: A sideline throw that Halliday himself could not have executed any better.
The wheel is a staple of the Air Raid, and Falk expertly drops it into the arms of Rickey Galvin, who has badly beaten a linebacker, before the safety can get off his hash. Wonderful play. Admire it again:
Lastly, this is another throw that looks like a fairly routine pitch-and-catch, but notice how he recognizes Mayle's one-on-one matchup and trusts Mayle to win the battle before the blitz can get home up the middle. Here's that word again -- poise:
The Not As Good
It wasn't all perfect. Here are a handful of times Falk either wasn't on the same page with a receiver, or didn't make the correct read. Here's a 4th-and-2 in the second quarter that should have been a fairly routine completion, yet he and Galvin couldn't hook up:
To my eye, it looks like Falk expected Galvin to cut his route off at the sticks, while Galvin rounded off his cut and kept drifting downfield. The result was a throw that ended up short of its target, allowing the linebacker to make a play on the ball.
This was a near interception that looks nearly identical to an interception Halliday threw against Utah. The linebacker pretends to rush, only to drop off and read Falk's eyes:
Here's another near interception. This time the Trojans appear to once again be in cover 2, but the safety arrives a little faster this time than on the throw to Galvin:
My goodness, the scrambling. I'm not even going to offer commentary for each one. Just enjoy, noticing the most important thing on all of these: Even with pressure at his feet, Falk keeps his eyes squarely downfield at all times.
OK, I lied. I'm going to talk before this one, because while I said the throw to Galvin was the crown jewel, maybe I spoke too soon:
Final Thoughts Going Forward
It's really not possible to say anything other than, "So far, so good."
Do we know that Falk can excel in the Air Raid? Not necessarily. Leach mentioned in his postgame that he called things pretty conservative early on after Falk got in the game, and it didn't appear that Falk was checking into a lot of different plays throughout the game. (I could obviously be wrong on this.) That's the sort of thing he needs to be doing before we can say Falk has "command" of the offense.
Tomorrow, Brian Anderson is going to go over ways in which Oregon State will likely try to disrupt Falk. The Beavers will have a week -- and a bit of game film -- to put something together for Falk, who was going up against the Trojans' Connor Halliday game plan. Falk presents a different challenge for OSU: He obviously is more mobile than Halliday, and he seemed more content to accept short throws than Halliday typically is -- both of which likely will play into the Beavers' game plan against Falk.
And this is where we'll start to find some things out. Can Falk adjust to what the other team is throwing at him? Does he possess enough arm strength to make the defense pay when they dedicate themselves to taking away his underneath options? Will he be able to recognize what the opponent is doing presnap and get the Cougs into a more advantageous play?
I'm also curious to see how he leads. This obviously is very subjective, but Jason Gesser said some interesting things about Falk and Bender when he joined Ian Furness and Jason Puckett on 950-AM in Seattle before this past game. You can listen to it here, but to paraphrase Gesser, Falk doesn't quite have the same physical tools as Bender, but he's a film junkie who works as hard as anyone, and he has a tremendous presence with his teammates -- a command of whatever room he's in.
Given how he didn't look at all like a deer in headlights on Saturday, this resonates. And while this isn't any kind of way that I wanted to find out about Falk, I'm anxious to see how it translates on the field.