Washington State is quickly earning respect this season

Luke Falk has led the Cougars to a 7-3 record, including 5-2 in the Pac-12. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

PASADENA, Calif. -- It was just shy of midnight when Washington State quarterback Luke Falk found Gabe Marks on 21-yard touchdown pass with three seconds left to give the Cougars a 31-27 win against a ranked UCLA team on Saturday.

The win qualifies as one of the program’s most significant in over a decade and propelled the Cougars to their first ranking in the AP poll since 2006 (No. 24), but, for those paying attention, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Not in the Pac-12, where everyone can seemingly beat anyone, but more so because this type of performance has become standard for WSU, which over the past several weeks has quietly established itself as one of the best teams in the conference -- maybe the best.

Not that many have noticed, of course. A decade-plus of irrelevancy, lightly-regarded recruiting classes and an opening-week loss to a FCS program have a way of making respect tough to come by. The late-night games don’t help, either, and the Cougars have noticed.

Asked if they have been getting the respect they deserve, Marks was blunt.

“No we haven’t. Everyone knows that,” he said. “People are not going to give us respect until they absolutely have to and now I think they have to.”

He’s not wrong.

Even when UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen scored with 1:09 left to put the Bruins up 27-24, there was never a sense of panic. The clock was an obvious factor, but, other than that, nothing appeared markedly different about the Cougars’ approach on the ensuing drive. Coach Mike Leach credited Falk's calming influence for allowing the offense to function under those circumstance, but the credit is a two-way street.

“This team, more than any other team, has taken on the personality of our coach. We just go on to the next thing,” Marks said. “If we’re up by 40 or we’re down by a touchdown or 10 points or whatever like that, it’s still the next drive. We have an opportunity go out there and make a play.”

It has been that way all year.

Falk threw a game-winning touchdown pass against Rutgers with 13 seconds left, a game-tying touchdown pass against Oregon with one second left and threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against Arizona State to erase a deficit. Leach quarterbacks tend to get written off due to the archaic system-quarterback line of thinking, but Falk’s production in key moments is a bigger reason he’s a front-runner for the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year award than any of his staggering totals.

Call Saturday's pass to Marks his signature moment.

"As a kid, you dream about having a game-winning drive in the Rose Bowl," Falk said, "and it was fun because I lived down here for a little bit so it was fun to get the win with some of my old teammates. It was a sweet one for me."

A sweet one for one of the most tortured fan bases in college football, too. Something special is happening on the Palouse. It's time to take notice.