Mike Leach says senior quarterback Luke Falk will start Saturday against Stanford

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Washington State coach Mike Leach nixed any talk of a quarterback controversy Monday afternoon, announcing that senior Luke Falk will start at quarterback for the Cougars against Stanford on Senior Day in Pullman this Saturday.

“We’ll start Luke,” Leach said, sounding less cross than he had Saturday, after the Cougars were demolished by Arizona 58-37 in Tucson.

Falk started against the Wildcats and led the Cougars on one touchdown drive, but in his seven offensive drives, the Cougars also had one missed field goal and punted five times. Four of those punts came after 3-and-outs.

Leach pulled Falk for Hilinski with 2:56 left in the second quarter, and the sophomore backup generated an instant spark, leading the offense to a touchdown on his first drive.

Hilinski went 45 of 61 for a career-high 509 yards, two passing scores and two rushing scores, but he also threw four interceptions in the loss. Hilinski’s fourth interception was a pick-six returned by Colin Schooler for a score, and it came with 11:09 remaining.

Leach said at that point, with the Cougars trailing Arizona 50-31, he decided to let Hilinski “just finish it out” because “it was awfully late in the game then.”

“Boy, now that would have been a comeback there wouldn’t it, to put (Falk) back in there and manufacture all those points?” Leach wondered aloud, adding that he originally intended to put Falk back in the game in the second half, but stuck with Hilinski because “Tyler was hot and moving the ball.”

Leach has been critical of Falk at several junctures this season, with his main complaint being that Falk, who’s well-known for his diligent film study and conscientious work habits, sometimes overanalyzes what he’s seeing on the field.

Yet, on Monday, the coach seemed eager to talk up Falk’s strengths.

“I think he needs to not put any pressure on himself because he’s worked hard, he’s trained, he needs to just do the best he can and be pleased with that,” Leach said, “Nobody trains harder than him anyway, so he needs to understand that his best is plenty.”

Is Falk at the point where he’s studying too much?

“I think that happens to everybody, but with that said, he is the most successful quarterback in the conference,” Leach said.

Leach’s said Falk’s analytical nature sometimes makes him play slow, but it also makes him good at his job.

“I think a lot of really good quarterbacks do (overanalyze). I think people who are achievers do,” Leach said. “I think they’re constantly thinking about what they do, what their job is, and constantly working on it and obsessing over it to the point where that’s what’s helped him grow and build and elevate.

“I think there’s been a lot of benefits from the diligence that goes along with it. But I think you can’t let it slow you down.”

The two halves of the Arizona game were a study of contrasting quarterbacking styles. Hilinski is the more aggressive of the two, and the sophomore conceded after the game that he pushed too hard at times and tried to make big plays instead of taking what the defense gave him.

Hilinski’s gunslinger tendencies are in some ways reminiscent of Falk’s predecessor, Connor Halliday.

“He’s kinda between Luke and Connor, maybe,” Leach said. “Some Connor. But a lot of his work habits and things to develop his skills to where they are, are drawn from Luke as an example.”

Falk, conversely, is all about making solid low-risk decisions based on what the defense gives him, and he does this well – sometimes to a fault, in Leach’s eyes.

“There’s a point to where who cares about the defense, you have to attack,” Leach said. “There’s some type of a balanced tipping point in there, I would say.”

So how can he help Falk find that balance?

“You just keep doing the same thing,” Leach said. “Part of it is just perspective and stuff like that.”

Falk was in Utah Monday attending the funeral of his paternal grandfather, Jack Falk, who died last Tuesday at the age of 88. With 25 career wins, Falk is the winningest quarterback in WSU history, and he also owns school and Pac-12 career records for pass attempts, completions, and total offense, among others.

His list of accomplishments made his benching on Saturday even more surprising, especially since it’s the second time he’s been benched for Hilinski this year, with the first coming in WSU’s triple-overtime win over Boise State.

But, Falk has taken it all in his stride, Leach said.

“I think he’s pretty well handled anything football-related excellently,” Leach said. “You talk about a guy who’s had a longer path than nearly everybody, and he’s taken it further than nearly everybody, and so he just has to keep plugging away.”

Through nine games, Falk has completed 68 percent of his passes, for 2,576 yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions. However, he’s coming off three games in which he compiled under-average statistics.

Falk went 13 of 23 for 93 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions before Hilinski replaced him against Arizona.

Leach said Hilinski did a good job, lauding his “quick feet” and how “ball comes off his hand quickly.”

“He moved the ball, marched down the field and did a good job, but just got reckless with the ball at times,” Leach said. “Some of them were tipped balls. One or two of them we should have caught.”