When you are a fan of a losing team, it's easy to overvalue and oversell the good. Latch onto a sliver of hope among a barge of garbage and ignore the noise. It's part of the reason Felix Hernandez is as popular as he is among Mariner fans. Sure, he's a terrific pitcher, but he was also one of the only reasons for hope during lost season after lost season.
For Washington State football fans, the Felix Hernandez symbol of hope during the last few years has been a rotating cast of good players on bad teams. From Jeff Tuel to Travis Long to Marquess Wilson, to Deone Bucannon to Connor Halliday. Bright spots on bad teams. A good quarterback is an easy player to latch onto as a fan. This is the guy to carry us out of this hole. This is the player who leads the turnaround. Tuel and Halliday were both that guy early in their career. Tuel made his debut against USC and was competent, something WSU fans hadn't seen out of the quarterback position. Halliday shredded ASU in his first extensive playing time, racking up 494 yards and providing a glimpse of hope for the future.
Like Tuel and Halliday before him, Luke Falk had his this is the guy game. His 471-yard performance in the win against the Beavers made it easy to be hopeful. If he could play this well in his first start as a redshirt freshman, imagine how good he'll be for the next three years! Potential is such an enticing thing in sports -- it's the reason college recruiting and MLB prospects receive so much attention -- and based on the early results, Falk has plenty of it.
A friend of mine from North Carolina came to Seattle for a couple days during the summer. We set out on one of the days to do the Seattle touristy thing. We instead ended up spending the day eating seafood, drinking beer and talking college football. He asked me if I thought WSU was primed to take the next step in next couple years and my response was something along the lines of "yeah, about that ... " I was sure Mike Leach and his staff were raising the talent level, but I also thought they were about to go through some unfortunate timing that was going to set the program back. To win running the Air Raid you need a good quarterback, a solid offensive line and competent pieces filling in the skill positions and on defense. I was sure WSU had the quarterback part down this year, but thought the Cougars were too young and underdeveloped in the other areas. The offensive line and defense were too young to take the next step this year unless everything broke right. Then, when those parts start to come around in 2015 ... you have no quarterback.
We know everything didn't break right for the Cougars this year. Two weeks ago, the Cougars' future in 2015 and beyond looked especially dire. Halliday was a big reason the Cougars were in a lot of games and WSU still couldn't win even with his record-setting pace. With only inexperienced and unproven players in the quarterback pipeline, surely WSU was going to have to take two steps back before finally moving forward and building proper cycles of depth. Despite a sample size of seven quarters, I'm convinced that's no longer the case.
At the risk of being completely hyperbolic, I'm already sold on Falk being the future at quarterback for WSU and if he's not it's because he's beaten out by a generational-type talent. That's an absurd statement to make considering Falk has thrown 120 passes in his career, but I'm sold. While small samples can certainly be misleading, this isn't about some inflated numbers due to big plays, inferior competition or fluke results. Falk is just a player. Oregon State came in allowing 5.8 yards per attempt, No. 12 in the country. Falk shredded the Beavers short, medium and long. He averaged 7.7 YPA, despite the Beavers throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at him defensively.
Even when Tuel debuted against USC, the results weren't sustainable. He scrambled for his life, made some nice runs and put up very modest numbers. That wasn't Falk. His pocket presence is the best I've seen from a WSU quarterback in a while. He doesn't have Halliday's arm strength but tossed some absolute dimes against the Beavers and had success pushing the ball downfield. He threw the ball 61 times and you can count the poor throws on one hand. His ability to extend plays in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield to find open receivers was a game-changer.
When Tuel and Halliday struggled to command the Air Raid early, we heard a lot of stories about how hard the offense truly is. Simple to learn, hard to master. The command Falk showed of the system, with three quarters of live action under his belt, was stunning. He made good checks in the run game and worked through his reads distributing the ball all over the field for a balanced and lethal attack. After the game Leach said Falk missed a few checks on a drive, but noted he still led the Cougars to a score. He "took the scenic route" Leach quipped. Remember how Tuel struggled to command the system against BYU, or how Halliday did against OSU in 2012, then look at Falk today. Falk is loaded with potential, but he proved he's also pretty dang good right now.
Ultimately, whichever quarterback does become the guy to lead the turnaround is going to do so by being a good to great player surrounded by good players. The Cougars will still need a good offensive line and competent players filling out the depth chart. They appear to be on the way to accomplishing that. The offensive line is developing and the talent level is increasing, even if it only shows in bursts. Recruiting is better and the pieces are beginning to fall into place for the future.
The biggest piece of all was a major question mark nine days ago. Now, I'm convinced it's set. Luke Falk is going to be the guy.