There have been games where Luke Falk threw for more yards, and games where Falk threw for more touchdowns, but there has never been a game that has defined the Washington State quarterback more than this one.
Falk found Gabe Marks for a 21-yard touchdown with three seconds remaining and the WSU Cougars upset the No. 18 UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl, 31-27, to move to 7-3 on the season.
Falk finished with "just" 331 yards on 38-of-53 passing with "just" two touchdowns and an interception. But his performance was so much more than numbers can possibly describe. It was one of the gutsiest displays you'll ever see from a quarterback, as Falk took hit after hit, holding onto the ball as long as possible and scrambling when necessary to will WSU to the victory.
With WSU trailing 13-7, Falk was knocked out of the game in the second quarter when his head collided violently with the ground at the end of a sack, and although none of us are doctors, he certainly looked to have a concussion:
Here's the play where Luke Falk was injured. He is tough, but nobody is this tough. https://t.co/VytoP011Z8— Jeff Nusser (@NussCoug) November 15, 2015
The doctors even took his helmet as he went to the locker room, leaving everyone to assume that it would be Peyton Bender the rest of the way. Although Bender threw a fade TD to Dom Williams to give the Cougars a 14-13 lead, it was hard to believe that WSU would have much of a chance without Falk at the helm. The Cougars trailed 16-14 at the break.
But to the surprise of nearly everyone, Falk did return for the second half. It paid off immediately, as WSU drove down the field for a TD on its first drive, which ended when Falk found Marks on a free play after UCLA jumped offside.
With this TD pass, Luke Falk has tied the WSU single-season record (34) held by Halliday/Leaf. #GoCougs pic.twitter.com/pM7GZUsg2E— WSU Cougar Football (@wsucougfb) November 15, 2015
Gaining confidence and playing faster as the game wore on, the Cougar defense would shut out UCLA in the third quarter, and WSU finished that frame and started the fourth driving. Unlike the first half, which was keyed by WSU's red zone efficiency, that drive stalled in the red zone, but Erik Powell booted a 25 yarder through the uprights to give WSU an 8-point advantage at 24-16.
UCLA went on the march again, largely on the legs of Paul Perkins, who gained 121 yards on 20 carries. But the defense again stood tall when it mattered most, holding the Bruins to another red zone field goal -- their third of the game -- to make the score 24-19.
WSU needed a long touchdown drive to kill the game, and looked to be doing just that -- the Cougs had eaten up four minutes and moved down to the UCLA 23 by mixing in the run and the pass, including a beautiful drop in the bucket from Falk to Robert Lewis for 21 yards on 3rd-and-2.
But Falk felt just a little too good: He took a shot at the end zone toward Williams, and the safety read it all the way to intercept it. And the Bruins suddenly had life.
Needing one stop, the WSU defense struggled to get off the field. The Cougars repeatedly got the Bruins to third down, but couldn't make the final play, giving up three conversions on the drive before UCLA QB Josh Rosen took advantage of some man coverage by WSU to improbably scamper 37 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:09 remaining in the game. The two-point conversion gave the Bruins a 27-24 lead.
Then came the magic that Falk is becoming known for as just a redshirt sophomore.
The first chunk came when Falk found Marks for 16 yards to move to the WSU 44. After Falk scrambled for five yards, he found Williams on a slant and he shook one defender to pick up 30 big yards and suddenly the Cougs were in business at the UCLA 21.
After a pair of incompletions took the game clock down to 11 seconds, the Cougars decided to take one more shot with a timeout in their pockets. Falk dropped back, unable to immediately find a receiver. But the line that gave up six sacks held tough, and Falk heaved a throw to Marks' back shoulder in the end zone. UCLA committed defensive pass interference, but it didn't matter: Marks did what he does, pulling in the biggest catch of the year to win the game.
Here it is, your GAME-WINNER! Falk to Marks, 21 yards! #GoCougs https://t.co/rGV9770r36— WSU Cougar Football (@wsucougfb) November 15, 2015
Besides being the game winner, that touchdown also set the single-season touchdown mark for Falk -- his 35th of the season passes Connor Halliday for the record. Marks, meanwhile, finished with 12 catches for 92 yards and those two touchdowns, and with those catches, Marks now holds the WSU record for career receptions.
But other than that, the numbers didn't favor WSU -- a testament to the way this team has simply made plays when it had to in order to win games.
The Cougars didn't play particularly well in the first half, as they were outgained 316-189. But they trailed by just two heading into the break thanks to a timely turnover and excellent performance in the red zone.
First, the defense was the epitome of bend-but-don't-break, twice stopping UCLA inside the 10-yard line, leading the Bruins to elect for field goal tries.
Meanwhile, the offense made the most of its limited opportunities. WSU scored its first TD on its second drive of the game when Gerard Wicks plunged into the end zone from two yards out.
Back-to-back tough runs by Wicks, and here's how he finished off that drive! #GoCougs pic.twitter.com/2XpBCb4B5A— WSU Cougar Football (@wsucougfb) November 15, 2015
Later -- spurred on by a fumble recovery on a kickoff that started their drive at UCLA's 14 -- WSU would take a 14-13 lead when Bender found Dom Williams in the corner of the end zone on a fade. A UCLA field goal at the end of the half made it 16-14 heading into the break.
All told, UCLA outgained WSU 554-426, and the Bruins held a 6.2-5.3 yards per play advantage. But you can go a long way with red zone TDs, red zone stops and timely turnovers.
Maybe even all the way to the top 25, where WSU will almost certainly be tomorrow.