<
>

Luke Falk, Washington State motivated by 2016's 'mixed bag'

Washington State quarterback Luke Falk should own many of the most important Pac-12 career passing records by the end of the 2017 season. Last season, he led the Cougars to a 7-0 mark in conference play for the first time in school history.

Falk's 343.7 yards passing per game in 2016 ranked fourth in the nation. His 38 touchdown passes ranked sixth.

If you want to get sabermetric about things, according to Pro Football Focus, Falk’s 78.0 accuracy percentage ranks No. 2 among returning Power 5 quarterbacks, behind Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (80.1), a top Heisman Trophy contender.

So yeah, impressive QB.

And yet, a fog seemed to envelope Falk and the Cougars by season's end, one part "what might have been" and one part general grumpiness.

“It was a mixed bag," Falk said of the 2016 campaign. "At times, we could have played a lot better, and at times, we played at a real high level. I wish we could have finished the season off right, but we’re fixing some things that need to be fixed. We’re getting our chemistry right.”

The Cougars finished the season with three consecutive defeats, including a fourth consecutive loss in the Apple Cup to Washington, which then gamboled off to the College Football Playoff. The regular season ending with losses to top-10 teams could be justified. A shocking 17-12 loss to Minnesota in the National Funding Holiday Bowl, however, could not. Not to take anything away from the Gophers' efforts, but the Cougars, touchdown favorites, played flat, uninspired football.

“It was kind of a weird game," Falk said. "A weird energy on the sideline.”

Also a bit weird was Cougars coach Mike Leach's announcement that Falk was going to return for his senior season in advance of the bowl game, and Falk offering up nothing in the way of confirmation afterward. As noted by the Seattle Times, Falk’s older sister, Natalee, tweeted a few hours after Leach's prediction went public, “This has not been confirmed by Luke. He is making his decision after the Holiday Bowl game.”

When no such announcement came as the calendar flipped to January and the deadline for entering the draft approached, more than a few Cougs started to believe Falk planned to bolt.

Falk seemed mostly bored when asked about the tempest in a teapot. He said he was a strong lean toward returning all along.

“I looked into it, but it never felt right," he said. "I always go with what my gut tells me, and I felt like I really want to come back and finish it out with my teammates who I came in with.”

While Falk almost certainly would have been a midround draft pick this spring, there also is no question he can improve his stock with a good senior season. He acknowledges, for one, that he needs to get bigger -- his 6-foot-4, 216-pound frame probably needing at least 10 more pounds of quality beef.

While the Cougars are replacing two of their top three receivers from the fall, including All-Pac-12 selection Gabe Marks, a perusal of what is coming back on both sides of the ball in 2017 suggests Washington State will again be a factor in the North Division race.

Last season, Falk threw for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns. He has 10,888 passing yards in his career, which presently ranks eighth on the conference's all-time list. Set to be a 3½-year starter, he needs just 2,713 yards to eclipse Oregon State's Sean Mannion for the top spot. Falk's 89 career touchdown passes is 27 behind USC's Matt Barkley.

With a 42-16 win at Stanford on Oct. 1, Falk led the Cougars to their first win over a team ranked in the top 15 since they beat No. 5 Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl. No question, Falk has accomplished a lot in his career, which he began in Pullman as an obscure walk-on.

Yet to become a Washington State legend, he's going to need to win an Apple Cup, particularly if that means the Cougars step on and over the hated Huskies to win the North.

When such a baited hook was cast before Falk, he barely even sniffed.

“Every game is important," he said. "That one’s important to a lot of Coug fans. But really, every game in the Pac-12 is a huge game.”

While such talk -- "one game at a time ... every game is a championship!" -- might sound uninspiring, it perhaps should feel more meaningful with the Cougars when taken in the context of our concluding factoid:

They haven't started a season 1-0 since 2011.