In his senior year, Gabe Marks has gone from being the star of the show to one of the key names in an impressive ensemble cast, and he's just fine with that. Though, he's still got his sights set one big personal goal.
With three seconds left in the game and his team trailing No. 18 UCLA by three points, Gabe Marks came through in the clutch, snaring a long pass from Luke Falk to score the game-winning touchdown at the Rose Bowl.
That’s the enduring image most Washington State fans have from the Cougars’ thrilling 31-27 win at UCLA last season, and in many ways, the play epitomizes what Marks means to this team.
At 6-feet, 190 pounds, Marks has never been the biggest receiver on anyone’s roster. Yet he plays with a fire unrivalled by many and prides himself on his ability to deliver whenever his team needs him to do so.
After leading the Cougars with 1,192 yards and 15 touchdowns in his junior season, Marks is back atop WSU’s offense this year as the Cougars (3-2 overall, 2-0 Pac-12) face UCLA (3-3, 1-2) once again, this time in front of a homecoming crowd at Martin Stadium on Saturday night.
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Marks is still WSU’s biggest offensive threat. He leads the Cougars with six touchdowns, and has scored at least once in every game this season
Statistically, however, Marks hasn’t featured quite as prominently in WSU’s offense this year.
As the Cougars near the halfway point of the season, Marks has accounted for about 15 percent of WSU’s 1,907 receiving yards. He has 34 receptions for 301 yards and is averaging 60.2 receiving yards per game.
It’s roughly 57 percent of Marks’ receiving yardage total through five games last season (525 yards, 43 rec, 5 TD, 105 yards per game), when he accounted for 26 percent of the Cougars’ receiving yardage.
Yet, these stats don’t bother the Cougars’ star receiver. The offense has evolved this year, he says, and he’s embraced this beta version of the Air Raid that’s ranked ninth nationally in scoring (43.8 points per game now, compared to 31.6 through five games in 2015).
“I think I’m open a lot. But the offense is working in a different way this year. We’ve got a lot of guys making a lot of plays,” Marks said. “Balance in the Air Raid is always more beneficial than one or two guys really dominating out there.”
Quarterback Luke Falk is once again the linchpin of the Cougars’ offense, and with a year of starting experience, he’s seeing the field better, reading defenses more adeptly and distributing the ball more equitably among his receivers than ever before.
“The quarterback is experienced in the offense, he knows it like the back of his hand, and they don’t just have one guy, they have multiple receivers who can make plays,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, whose team surrendered six touchdowns and 458 offensive yards to the Cougars last week. “And on top of that, if you’re playing too soft, the biggest change is they’re running the ball really, really well.
“Every time you run the ball, that takes away a pass attempt, so the receivers maybe don’t catch as many balls – though, they seem to be catching their fair share.”
The Cougars’ discovery of an effective running game – they’ve tallied 746 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns already this season – was a necessary addition to the offense, says Marks. Especially when combined with a defense that’s become a dominant force in its own right.
“The offense has always put up the yards and scored the points. But the defense getting turnovers and being disruptive, it changes the whole aspect of the game – the fact that you don’t have to get into a shootout every week,” Marks said. “And the running game. It just feels like it’s given us the weird balance you have to have in football. I used to not believe that.”
But as a wizened old fifth-year senior, Marks has come to appreciate that the Cougars are no longer a one-trick pony.
“I’ve been on teams where they know the defense isn’t gonna stop them and they know we are not gonna run the ball. So they drop like 10 guys and I’m like 160 pounds back there, and I’m running digs and post routes at defensive ends,” Marks said. “The addition of the run game and the defense is much welcome to me. I’m a big fan. At this point in my career, I know what they can do for me, and I like it.”
So he’s taken this half season of fewer catches, coverages rolled in his direction, and occasional double teams in his stride.
“I’m running good routes and everything. Nothing’s changed,” Marks says. “It’s just, we’ll take advantage of what they’re giving us.”
Also, he’s worked on perfecting stuff you don’t see on the stat sheet.
“One thing I’m stressing is to try to play really good without the ball, not necessarily just in blocking, but before you get the ball,” outside receivers coach Dave Nichol said. “I think Gabe is a good route runner, but it was a point of emphasis to get him to be a better route runner. What you do before the ball affects what you can do after it. Other than just getting catches, catches, catches and no yards after the catch, it’s blocking, chasing the ball down and blocking for other teammates. That’s where I think he’s improved.”
Even though he’s not the sort to track every stat, Marks has his sights set on a couple of lofty goals as the end of his college career looms.
Last week, he caught two touchdowns against the Cardinal to pull even with Dom Williams with 30 touchdowns at No. 2 on WSU’s all-time career touchdown receptions list. He needs just three more touchdowns to leapfrog Jason Hill (32 TD) for first place.
Marks’ five receptions in Palo Alto also moved him into second place on the Pac-12’s career receptions list, with 261 catches. He needs 34 more receptions to pass former Colorado receiver Nelson Spruce (294 rec) and become the Pac-12’s all-time career receptions leader.
Marks wants that Pac-12 record and he’s not afraid to admit it.
“That’s sick, let’s be honest. That’s kinda cool. I think it would be cool for me, and I think it would be cool for Washington State to be on top of that list,” Marks said. “I’ve been here for a while, doing a lot of things people don’t see us do, that’s really a lot harder than what (everyone) sees us do.
“To be able to leave as No. 1 in conference history, that’s more than you can even imagine for yourself, really. That’s not even a thing you start out going for. It would be tight.”