His team had controlled most of the game, but with 11:52 to go, Washington State Cougars senior quarterback Luke Falk took the field with his offensive teammates needing a touchdown to beat the No. 21 Stanford Cardinal on Senior Day in Martin Stadium.
The odds of it happening on that drive were long—another fine Cardinal punt had pinned Falk’s Cougars on their own six-yard line, 94 yards from what was required to keep WSU’s Pac-12 title hopes alive.
Falk came into the game at the tail end of a wretched string that saw his grandfather pass away, followed by the lowest moment of his decorated WSU career: A benching at Arizona. It’s hard to know how grief will affect a person, but perhaps being just days removed from losing an important figure in his life wasn’t enough time to be fully into football.
On this day, however, Falk was looking more like his old self after a pair of second-quarter touchdown drives.
The newly christened all-time Pac-12 passing leader wouldn’t start this drive with his arm. Instead, against a Stanford front expecting a pass, he handed it to dynamic running back James Williams. The sophomore found a big hole, and danced his way to the 18-yard line. Suddenly the task felt a little less daunting for the Cougars out of the shadow of their own end zone.
“I know he’s with me out there,” Falk said of his grandfather. “I was joking at his funeral that he already had a seat in the stadium, ready for the game. I felt him with me the whole time.”
This situation looked remarkably similar to Stanford’s last trip to Pullman. In that game, WSU took the ball with 14:14 to play in the fourth quarter, down 27-22 after largely outplaying the Cardinal for much of the day. That drive ended in a touchdown, giving the Cougs the lead. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a lead that would last and Falk was forced to engineer another comeback, one that ultimately came short as a potential game-winning field goal from Erik Powell hooked wide right as time expired.
The stakes were similar that day too, as WSU also needed that game to keep up in the Pac-12 North.
While the drive started with a bang, it nearly ended just as quickly. Following the Williams first down, Falk was brought to the turf for a four-yard loss. The quarterback found himself under pressure again on the next play, heaving the ball out of bounds to avoid another sack.
Suddenly, the Cougars needed 14 yards from their own 14, or they’d be punting back to Stanford for the third consecutive time. With 10:55 to go, that wouldn’t necessarily spell doom, but at some point, the Cougars needed to score.
For an Air Raid offense, 14 yards isn’t a death sentence. A team that throws the ball as much as WSU can find its way around many a third-and-long. However, in tough weather conditions amid a season where first downs hadn’t seemed to come as easily through the air, one might have felt a little less confident in the Cougars converting.
Falk took the snap needing a little extra time for his preferred route to develop downfield. He found it by sliding just a step to his left. That opened up a throwing lane, but it also put him in a difficult position to make a strong throw.
No matter: Falk slung it over the middle into the waiting arms of a sliding Tay Martin for 17 yards. Drive extended. Hope renewed.
“He might have a record,” said WSU head coach Mike Leach, when asked about Falk’s history of comebacks. “He’s been involved with probably more comeback drives than maybe anybody in the history of the Pac-12.”
Leach may be speaking in hyberbole—he’s been known to do that a time or two before—but Falk certainly has engineered a set of comebacks that will live forever in Cougar lore.
It began at Rutgers in 2015, when he took the Cougs down the field for a game-winning score with only seconds to play; then it happened again just weeks later at Oregon when Falk brought WSU back from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit, tying the game on a TD pass at the end of regulation in a game that the Cougs would eventually win in overtime; then it happened again at UCLA when Falk connected with Gabe Marks for a 21-yard TD at the end of a 75-yard drive that spanned just 66 seconds to beat the Bruins.
While most of the Coug wins in 2016 were of a more comfortable nature, Falk and crew did need a 21-point comeback to beat Oregon State in Corvallis—which also required a fourth-quarter go-ahead TD.
There’s a pattern there: None of those legendary comebacks came at Martin Stadium. Sure, there had been game-winning drives, such as earlier this season against USC, but none when the Cougs were trailing in the fourth quarter at home (with the aforementioned Stanford game coming oh-so-close).
Who Needs Third Downs Anymore?
When an Air Raid drive hits its stride, it’s a beautiful thing to witness. After converting that third-and-14, the Cougars hit another gear. Williams cut back against the grain to pick up nine yards. A quick pass to Tavares Martin, Jr. netted another first down. Another screen out to Tay Martin picked up eight, Williams grabbed three more and WSU had set up shop in Stanford territory with a new set of downs. The Cougs were rolling.
First down runs had netted big gains on this drive, but never forget: This is the Air Raid. With 8:10 to play at the Stanford 47, Falk and WSU smelled blood. (Or sap?)
Falk stood alone in the backfield while running back Jamal Morrow split out to the slot, creating a five-receiver set. Falk took the snap in rhythm, needing just a half step to gather himself before throwing a perfect strike to Morrow over the middle. The do-it-all senior split the Cardinal defense right up the gut, and he pushed the ball all the way down to the 26-yard line.
It was Morrow again on the next play, taking a Falk swing pass for 15 yards down the sideline. WSU was on the Stanford 11, having used five different players to pick up first downs on the drive.
“Everyone made huge plays at the right time,” said Falk. “I think it was just a real gutsy performance by everyone. I mean I could name off everyone down the line who made a big play in that game. So, it’s just everybody doing their job and that’s how football should be.”
Falk’s first touchdown pass at Martin Stadium is a nice piece of trivia, and while it came fittingly in the fourth quarter, the needle on the pressure gauge was just a little to the left. His first TD actually came against Portland State in 2014.
Falk checked in late in the fourth quarter of a blowout, and on his second pass found a wide-open Dom Williams for 84 yards and a score. That play still stands as the longest pass in Falk’s WSU career. The largest chunk of the Pac-12’s all-time passing leader’s yardage came on just his second throw.
There were 61 more touchdown passes for Falk in Martin Stadium between that seemingly meaningless score against Portland State during his freshman season and this highly meaningful drive against Stanford on his Senior Day.
One More Martin Stadium TD
Color commentators often like to go on and on about how the Air Raid should struggle when it gets close to the goal line. The windows become tighter as there is less ground for the defense to cover, and a team reliant on the passing game will struggle to get those last yards. Facing first down from the 11-yard line, the Cougs found a way to not just open up a window, but burst through the wall like the Kool-Aid man.
Falk dropped back and coyly surveyed the field—three of the four wide receivers in the formation had dashed toward the end zone, and much of Stanford’s defense followed, forgetting to cover that all-important fourth man. Jamire Calvin flashed in front of Falk, with nary a Cardinal defender within eight yards. Falk hit the freshman in stride on the left hash, and he coasted to a go-ahead and eventually game-winning WSU touchdown with 6:56 to play.
On his Senior Day, following his worst week at WSU both on the field and off, Falk’s 63rd and final Martin Stadium touchdown was his most meaningful, and added one more memorable drive to his long list of heroics at WSU. That’s enough to make even the typically stoic Falk let his guard down.
“I mean it’s the last time you get to play in Martin Stadium and the way that we won it against a great opponent in Stanford, you know a lot of emotions came together when it was all said and done,” said Falk. “I didn’t really think about them during the game.
“Once we were able to get the win, I allowed myself to think about some stuff like that and people that have helped me along my path. Coach Mastro and Coach Mele, people like that and all my teammates and the seniors. You know it got pretty emotional, heck I might get emotional right now. It’s just been a great ride, we gotta finish it right.”