The same team that began the season on a two-game losing streak is now the No. 25 team in the country and has not lost a conference game.
With the offense firing on all cylinders at just the right moments and the emergence of a much more potent defense and running game, the Washington State Cougars have risen from the ashes of the arrests, suspensions and lackluster play that marked the season's first weeks. The six-game winning streak WSU is riding is its longest since 2003.
Redshirt junior quarterback Luke Falk is at the helm of the recent success. Saturday night's fourth-quarter comeback at Oregon State was the sixth fourth-quarter victory he's guided in his career, and his especially focused energy, no matter the score or time left on the clock, earned him the nickname "Cool Hand Luke."
"It's important. That's a part of the job description for a quarterback, to be able to lead 10 other guys," says wide receiver Gabe Marks, a redshirt senior. "He knows when to bring everybody to attention, I guess, calm everybody down."
Falk threw for five touchdowns against the Beavers, bringing his career total to 75 touchdown passes, placing him third in WSU history. He's completed 72.6 percent of his passes, and in the moments when the Cougars need it the most, Falk and his trusted receiving core of Marks and senior River Cracraft breathe life into the team.
During the game against the Beavers, when the Cougars started out in a hole almost as large as the one they appeared to be in at the beginning of the season, Falk connected with Marks on a seemingly impossible attempt to close the gap. Marks came down with the ball despite four defenders around him and ended up back in the end zone on the next drive, hauling in the pass that would give WSU its first lead of the game in the third quarter.
The potency of Falk, Marks and Cracraft, especially in tight situations, is the mark of a scrappy team that continues to find new ways of both getting behind and coming from behind. Marks and Cracraft have combined for 1,078 receiving yards, and Marks has hauled in nine touchdown passes.
In addition to head coach Mike Leach's traditional Air Raid offense, the emergence and evolution of a strong run game has been aided by the offensive line's play. Redshirt junior running back Jamal Morrow and redshirt freshman running back James Williams have each scored four touchdowns and redshirt junior running back Gerard Wicks has racked up eight.
The running back trio is averaging 122.8 yards per game. They have combined for more than 100 yards rushing in four games thus far this season.
"For us to finally talk about, hey, we had a bad running game, it's a tribute to Coach [Jim] Mastro and the job he's done with it since he got here, and it's a tribute to the three other running backs," Morrow says.
Rumors of a stop in Pullman by ESPN's College GameDay, the continuation of an undefeated Pac-12 record and a classic, tear-your-heart-out, come-from-behind win sweetened the Cougars' Halloween weekend. Next, WSU hosts Arizona for the annual Dad's Weekend game. The Cougars are favored to win by 16 points, and Arizona's offensive struggles may prove difficult for the Wildcats to overcome.
Arizona is the only Pac-12 team yet to score 100 points in conference play and had just five pass completions against Stanford. By comparison, WSU beat then-No. 15 Stanford 42-16 last month in Palo Alto.
Arizona's struggling offense will come up against a Cougar defense that has improved this season, despite losing two players to suspension. The WSU defense gave up 496 and 299 passing yards, respectively, in September losses to Eastern Washington and Boise State, but the unit has since intercepted five passes and recovered seven fumbles. As against the Beavers last Saturday, the defense has come up with key stops when necessary. They forced three consecutive three-and-outs at the beginning of the second half, allowing the offense to catch up.
"It's like [Jamal] Morrow said, it's like putting your foot on their throat. We emphasize that on the sidelines a lot, playing the full 60 minutes," says junior defensive back Robert Taylor. ♦
Washington State vs. Arizona • Sat, Nov. 5, at 1 pm • Martin Stadium, Pullman • sold out • Televised on Pac-12 Networks; radio broadcast on KXLY 920 AM