Also, Utah will be without a starting safety this weekend, and Mike Leach wants the NCAA to nix the targeting rule
Sure, the official College Football Playoff is an exclusive four-team affair, but with two must-win games left in the season, Washington State is now operating in playoff mode, with a spot in the Pac-12 Championship game as the trophy.
WSU plays at Utah this week, then faces UW in Seattle on Nov. 25. Win out and the Cougs will be playing for a conference championship on the first weekend of December.
“We want to win all the games,” said WSU coach Mike Leach. “It’s one game a week and we’re locked into this one.”
The Utes were dreadful in October, compiling an 0-4 record. But they started November on a winning note by beating UCLA 48-17 and at 5-4, they’re now playing for bowl eligibility.
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The Utes can also play the spoiler role in the Pac-12 North race – they play the Cougars and Huskies back-to-back before finishing the season against Colorado.
In some ways, Utah reminds Leach of Stanford.
“They’re a very physical team. Similar to the team we just played, very physical in both trenches on with the offensive line and the defensive line, with a good running back and a quarterback who runs around a bit,” Leach said. “It’ll be a very physical game, I suspect.”
This game is a homecoming for WSU quarterback Luke Falk, who’s from Logan, Utah, about 80 miles from Salt Lake City.
In his five years at WSU, Falk’s ascension from unknown walk-on to become the Pac-12’s career passing leader is well-known.
Special teams coach Eric Mele came across Falk’s film when he was tasked with finding a quality walk-on quarterback. WSU talked Falk into walking on in Pullman instead of playing at Cornell. Five years later, he’s poised to leave WSU as one of the best quarterbacks in school history.
“It says that recruiting is not an exact science and that in Luke’s case, a lot of focus and determination can elevate your play, and with a good team around you, you can build yourself into some great things,” Leach said. “This had more to do with persistence and hard work than straight up natural talent. And a lot of the time, that’s what exists with great players.”
Falk has never faced Utah in his 3.5 seasons as WSU’s starter. He was Connor Halliday’s backup the last time WSU played the Utes in 2014 and overcame a 17-point halftime deficit to win 28-27 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Cougars just completed a perfect 7-0 home record for the first time in program history, but haven’t done well on the road this year. Their only road win came against an Oregon team missing its starting quarterback. Meanwhile, WSU got blown out of Cal Memorial Stadium, and overrun by Arizona in Tucson.
Still, Leach says he can’t pinpoint what, if anything, ails the Cougars on the road.
“At Cal, the ball bounced as funny as I’ve ever seen it bounce in any game I’ve ever seen,” Leach said. “Cal played real hard. We could have played better. Arizona, they played extremely well offensively, and I’m sure there’s a thing or two we’d do (differently) over on defense, but their option stretches those things, and we didn’t come out on top.”
There’s no secret formula to winning on the road, Leach says.
“We’ve just got to keep doing the same stuff. Just eliminate the distractions and focus on the job. I wish I had a more exciting answer,” Leach said.
Scratch the targeting rule, Leach says
WSU has not drawn any targeting penalties this season, though it’s had a couple of targeting penalties called back upon review.
But the targeting rule has come under fire because its detractors say it’s not consistently enforced, and that it can sometimes be unfair, and Leach is squarely in this camp.
“It’s a really stupid rule,” Leach said. “I think the targeting rule is nearly impossible to officiate. It’s far too difficult to call, and I think there’s a real inexactness to calling it. They need to get rid of it.”
Leach says he hasn’t seen any deliberate targeting this season, but that most targeting penalties come when “somebody stands up at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Someone is running with the ball, the idea is to tackle him. He doesn’t want to get hit so he’s moving all over the place,” Leach said. “Most targeting I’ve seen is accidental. The guy is just trying to hit somebody.”
Utes lose starting safety to season-ending injury
Utah free safety Marquise Blair is done for the season after suffering a lower leg injury against UCLA last week, the Salt Lake Tribune reported Monday.
Blair started six games for Utah this year, and is third on the defense with 48 tackles. He will be replaced in the lineup by junior Corrion Ballard, who started four games at free safety before Blair beat him out for the starting job. Ballard has 30 tackles, an interception and a pass breakup this year.