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Luke Falk gets a chance to go out on his own terms

It’s now or never for the senior quarterback.

Photo illustration by Britton Ransford

The Washington State Cougars host the Stanford Cardinal today, and it’s already the final home game of the season at Martin Stadium, thanks to that very strange opening to the season in which WSU played five consecutive games in Pullman, all in September.

That means today is Senior Day for one of the most decorated quarterbacks to ever play at WSU, and the circumstances couldn’t be weirder for Luke Falk.

I’ve actually been avoiding writing about this in depth, mostly out of respect for Falk, who has accomplished so much. From walk-on to all-Pac-12 first teamer, we all love everything he represents on and off the field: Tenacity, toughness, leadership, etc. He’s as good an ambassador for Washington State as you could ask for, along with so many other players on this team.

But after last weekend’s benching against Arizona — the second of its kind this season — there’s kind of no way to dance around the topic anymore, particularly now that it’s down to brass tacks for the season: Beat Stanford today, and the Pac-12 Championship is still in play; lose, and it’s all but over for that particular goal.

Can we take a moment, first, to acknowledge how weird sports are? Of all the things we imagined with this season — and there was a wide range of opinions on just how this season might go down — “debating who should be the starting QB of 7-2/top 25 WSU when Luke Falk actually is healthy” would have gotten you laughed out of the room or whatever, right? I suppose this is why sports were the original reality TV.

This season was supposed to be a coronation for Falk, who passed up a chance to presumably get taken in the first couple of days of the NFL Draft to finish some business at WSU and set every major school and Pac-12 passing record in the process.

Instead, it’s been a season-long conversation about what’s wrong with him and how the defense is really the unit carrying this team to what it’s accomplished.

Falk’s struggles have just been so strange and unanticipated. I mean, he’s always had a tendency to hold the ball in the pocket, a proclivity to want to make the safest throws; however, instead of improving in these areas, as you’d expect an experienced player to, this season largely represents a regression in both of those areas, leading to what Leach calls a “constipation” of the Air Raid offense that’s supposed to zoom up and down the field.

Last weekend, faced with another Falk stinker, Leach made the move to Tyler Hilinski faster than I thought he might — in fact, I wasn’t sure he’d make that move again after doing it against Boise State. He didn’t do it against Cal, which was objectively as bad as Falk could play. I figured the thought there was “man, you can do it once ... but twice ...?” And then Leach went and did his Leach thing.

Which, of course, elicited quite the reaction among fans. One of which went something like, “how dare Leach disrespect the QB who has given WSU — and him — so much!” Watching closely, though, it’s been pretty apparent for a while that something isn’t right with Falk — longer than this season, really.

Arbitrary end points are arbitrary, but something’s just been ... off ... since Colorado last season. And it seems it’s plausible that Leach is trying to walk the fine line between maximizing his team’s chances to win games and not completely blowing up Falk.

Consider: Leach has never had a problem publicly airing out underperforming players or units on his team. This is not a man to generally treat “student-athletes” with kid gloves, and yet as far as he’s gone to criticize his senior is to say, “I wanted Falk to see the field, because we weren’t pushing the ball down the field.”

It seems clear to me that Leach has a soft spot for Falk, who is once again the starter despite the fact that both times Leach has moved to Hilinski, the move has worked: Receivers were “suddenly” open, throws were made, chunk yardage was gained ... just as all those things were against Boise State. We don’t have to jump through a bunch of mental hurdles to convince ourselves that the problem with the offense was most likely the starting quarterback.

Decisions by Falk have to be made faster and more decisively, as Hilinski showed. There’s obviously a balance there — which we’ll get to in a second, since that’s the primary complaint about the backup at the moment — but so many times it was a swift decision that made things happen for Hilinski, even if a rash decision sometimes turned out badly. It’s hard to overstate how important it can be to simply hit a mesh concept quickly enough that you grab eight easy yards, which Hilinski did three or four times.

Hilinski was the reason the comeback against Arizona ever had a chance, even if he’s also the reason the comeback ultimately never came to fruition. However, it’s fascinating how different people perceive the same events differently.

  • Leach: “Hilinski was hot, so we stayed with Hilinski. I think Hilinski does a good job of bouncing around, pushing the ball downfield, but he gets reckless.”
  • Some fans: HOT??? OMG THE INTERCEPTIONS!!!

There’s no doubt that Hilinski threw the ball to the other team too often. Nobody would argue that point. But in managing this site for close to a decade, I’ve learned there’s a segment of fans that find any interception — literally, any interception — intolerable and inexcusable. These same fans don’t seem to have much of an issue with a fumble, which I would presume has to do with some combination of preconceived notions of how football should be played and the perception that a fumble is a physical miscue and an interception (generally) is a mental miscue, the likes of which should be able to be eliminated from the game with good coaching or something. (That’s absurdly unrealistic, but whatever.)

I hate to say it, but if that’s you ... you really don’t get the Air Raid and you’re probably going to be eternally dissatisfied with the offense under Leach. The Air Raid isn’t meant to never turn the ball over. The Air Raid is meant to punish opponents to the degree that if you do turn the ball over occasionally, it doesn’t really matter.

At the height of the Air Raid, when Graham Harrell was leading Texas Tech to a No. 2 ranking, he was averaging about one interception a game — but about four touchdowns a game, too. That’s the trade off, and it’s one that I, personally, will gladly take.

Truly: If you’re quarterbacking the Air Raid and you ain’t throwin’ an interception once in a while, you ain’t really tryin’.

It’s time for Luke Falk to start tryin’ again. He’s obviously been trying, but that steely look of determination we saw in 2015 that inspired so many has been replaced too often by one that more resembles a deer in headlights in 2017. It’s time to just cut it loose, because this is the fourth quarter of his career, and the Cougs are behind.

Truth be told, Falk always been at his best when his back is against the wall; that guy who led the program turnaround with so many improbable comebacks has to still be in there somewhere. It’s time for that desperation to bubble back up, because this really is it for Falk. The team’s destiny has been placed in his hands, and his own immediate personal future as a professional quarterback rests squarely on what he can show in these final four (five?) games.

And I do think that’s what he’ll get the chance to do. Hilinski gave Leach every reason to make a change, and Leach still decided to publicly state early in the week that Falk would be his quarterback today.

No competition, no speculation. Falk’s the guy.

I think that likely means he’ll be the guy not just for the entire game today, but for the rest of the season — if you make the move one more time, you surely can’t go back again.

This is the right play by Leach. It’s easy for fans to put aside emotion when debating something like a QB “controversy,” but it’s important to remember these are humans who take the field, and Falk has been the team’s leader for three-plus years now. It’s senior day. He’s on the verge of a lifetime record. And whatever you think Falk’s actual draft prospects were after last season, the perception is that he did a thing for WSU by coming back.

Unless you believe that guy has completely lost whatever it was that made him so good in the first place, it’s just not feasible to callously move on from him. I rarely say that someone “deserves” something in sports, but in this case? Falk deserves to go out on his terms, for better or worse.

Will he show up today? Who knows for sure? But I do know that the Pac-12 Network’s incessant shots of him last weekend showed me a guy who was absolutely furious to be standing there, watching the game from the sidelines. If this doesn’t bring out the competitor in Falk, something really is broken.

I don’t think it is. I doubt today’s weather conditions will allow for a classic Falk performance, at least in terms of stats, but if I were betting, I’d bet on him bouncing back and reminding us why we all thought he was so fabulous in the first place. I can’t wait to see that steely look in his eyes return.

Go Luke. We’re behind you. Go Cougs.