But even as records fall left and right and the Cougars pile up W’s, this senior year hasn’t gone as smoothly as Falk had hoped. Perhaps that’s to be expected as he has had to fight for every shred of success he’s enjoyed.
LOGAN, Utah — Luke Falk’s sanctum is a small brick house in a rural town just outside of Logan, Utah, that sits on a large tract of land owned by his maternal grandmother. Out front, there’s an old basketball hoop mounted on a metal backboard, where Falk and his uncle, former Utah State basketball star Jeff Anderson, have spent countless hours shooting hoops over the years.
Cords of firewood sit by an old trampoline, waiting to get thrown into the rustic fire pit overlooking the Wellsville Mountains and the Bear River.
Washington State’s senior quarterback has spent many brisk Utah evenings relaxing in front of that fire pit, often with a hearty portion of his Nana’s pork chops in his belly.
This is Falk’s sanctuary, and it’s easy to see why.
On this peaceful November day, the only sound in the still air comes from the V-shaped flock of ducks passing overhead. The withered golden plains around the house stretch for miles, fronting a backdrop of wispy cirrus clouds that blend lazily into the soft blue sky.
It’s not unlike the golden plains of the Palouse that have served as the setting for Falk’s record-breaking career.
As Falk embarks on his final regular-season game against UW in Saturday’s Apple Cup, his Washington State Cougars rank 15th nationally and stand one win away from a berth in the Pac-12 title game.
Falk came to Pullman five years ago, fueled by self-belief and comforted by how much the little college town hidden amid eastern Washington’s rolling prairies reminded him of his hometown of Logan, a little college town tucked in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains.
The former walk-on has become the winningest quarterback in school history. He owns every meaningful school and Pac-12 passing record, and the latest chapter of Falk’s story was written last weekend, when, back in Utah as a starting quarterback for the first time in his college career, Falk led the Cougars to a 33-25 win over the Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium and broke the Pac-12’s record for career passing touchdowns.
Falk acknowledged that beating the Utes at Rice-Eccles, complete with the Pac-12 career touchdown title, was a moment to be savored.
But even as records fall left and right and the Cougars pile up W’s, this senior year hasn’t gone as smoothly as Falk had hoped.
Perhaps that’s to be expected as one central theme stands out in the narrative of Falk’s football career: He’s had to fight for every shred of success he’s enjoyed, and that might be the single-most powerful force that has spurred him to greatness.
Full circle at Rice-Eccles Stadium
As Logan High receiver Jameson Hartman caught the winning touchdown with 36 seconds left in the 2011 Utah high school state-championship game, the crowd erupted and the Grizzlies engulfed Hartman and their star quarterback who’d just led them to a 14-0 record.
High up in the press box of Rice-Eccles Stadium, a tall, blond kid watched the excitement unfold through the lens of a video camera directed at the field. It killed him to not be out there with his teammates, but Falk dutifully kept his camera trained on the action.
Falk had moved back to Logan earlier that fall, after a 10-month stint in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where he’d attended football powerhouse Oaks Christian and tried to make a new life for himself in a place that never stopped feeling foreign to him.
The football went fine, but Southern California didn’t agree with the small-town boy from Utah. So two games into his junior season, Falk moved back to Logan — only to be told that the Utah State High School Athletic Association had deemed him ineligible for football that fall.
Falk went on to have a distinguished senior season at Logan, earning first-team all-state honors after passing for 3,618 yards and 36 touchdowns.
But that lost junior year cost Falk recruiting exposure and explains why the 6-foot-4, 224-pound quarterback had no FBS scholarship offers out of high school.
“I think some coaches viewed him as damaged goods — leaving and coming back,” said Mike Favero, Falk’s football coach at Logan High. “It’s baffling to me that out of 119 schools, one of them didn’t think a 6-4 guy who threw for 3,600 yards his senior year was good enough.”
Having to watch his team play for the state championship from the lens of a video camera explains why last week’s win over Utah meant so much to Falk. It also demonstrates his team-first nature, a constant to this day.
“Most people as good as Luke Falk aren’t gonna say, ‘I’ll film the games for you,’” Favero said, “So it was very emotional for me to be able to see him play on that big stage, beat the University of Utah — who obviously, for whatever reason, didn’t think he was good enough to offer a scholarship to — and then of course to break that Pac-12 all-time passing touchdown record. He put the exclamation point on who Luke Falk is.”
Overlooked and under-recruited
Falk’s teammates say he’s the quintessential competitor. His toughness is unquestioned in the locker room, and the steely grit, his renowned work ethic, and the 27 wins he’s led WSU to have earned Falk his team’s utmost respect.
“He’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around,” nickelback Hunter Dale said earlier this season. “I would trust him to the day I die. I trust him with my life.”
Yet, despite all these intangibles to go along with pinpoint accuracy, prototypical NFL quarterback height and finesse passing ability, Falk was somehow overlooked coming out of high school.
Even WSU assistant coach Eric Mele, who “found” Falk for the Cougars, struggles to explain why Falk was not more highly sought. Mele posits that some of Falk’s strengths also worked against him in the recruiting process.
Falk’s stability in the pocket is an asset, but some coaches might also view him as too immobile.
“He doesn’t run, per se, but I thought the way he moved in the pocket was what we looked for — stay in your space and not get caught,” Mele said.
Also, the arm strength is adequate, but not overpowering.
“He had the nice, pretty touch ball over the top,” Mele said. “It went far enough, but I don’t think it looked like a big-time arm talent, and a lot of guys look for that.”
Between the lack of top-flight arm strength, the lack of mobility and the lack of film to tout thanks to Falk’s lost junior year, dozens of recruiters passed him over until the summer of 2012, when WSU coach Mike Leach tasked Mele, then a quality-control assistant, with finding a quality walk-on to fill out the quarterbacks room.
I think some coaches viewed him as damaged goods.” - Mike Favero, Falk’s football coach at Logan High
“I watched his film and thought it was really good,” Mele said. “He had this big, over-the-top release and he put a lot of air under the ball, which is something we coach here. You could tell he was composed. He checked a lot of the boxes. He was a big kid with good numbers and a good touchdown-to-interception ratio.
“Leach watched the film and said, ‘See if you can get this guy.’ We both thought he was better than his offers.”
Mele got Falk and his parents to come visit WSU.
“He went to Pullman and just fell in love with the place,” said Anderson, Falk’s uncle. “It’s very similar to Logan, and I think that’s why it just set it up so perfectly for Luke.”
Tall and mild-mannered, with a basketball player’s lanky frame and a disarming smile, Anderson looks and sounds like an older version of Falk — except Anderson says “he’s about an inch taller than me and he has bigger hands.”
The two men share the same wisecracking sense of humor, their Utah State fandom and their competitive mindsets. Anderson’s backyard in Logan connected to the Falks’ backyard. Between those two houses, and Nana’s rural sanctuary, Falk spent a lot of time with his uncle, golfing, barbecuing and fishing.
With no scholarship offers going into his senior season, Falk was set on playing at Cornell. But as soon as WSU offered Falk a preferred walk-on spot, his carefully-laid plans changed.
“WSU sort of cracked the door this much open, and I knew from that second on, he wasn’t going to Cornell. I knew he was going to go to Washington State,” Anderson said. “I knew deep in my heart that he wanted to go up there, see what it was all about and see if he could compete.”
From Logan to Pullman
So in June 2013, Falk arrived in Pullman, expectations tempered by his uncle’s well-meaning warning: “You know you’re gonna get up there and you’re gonna be getting water for the five quarterbacks in front of you. It’s gonna be quite humiliating.”
Connor Halliday, Austin Apodaca, Tyler Bruggman, Connor Ennis and even Isaac Dotson — who later switched to defense — were ahead of Falk on the depth chart. Bruggman, a four-star recruit, was viewed by most as the heir apparent to Halliday.
But from the start, the anonymous walk-on turned heads with his work ethic.
“Even as a freshman, before football even started, before mandatory workouts, every day, we’d be sitting in the dorms and he’d be like, ‘Hey, you wanna go to the field and just catch some balls?’ ” said Cole Madison, WSU’s starting right tackle who started out as a tight end.
As they tossed the football around that summer, Madison recalls Falk harping that his goal on every play was to move the chains.
“When he first said that to me, I was like, ‘Huh. The kid knows football,’ ” Madison said. “You could just tell, there was something about the kid. He was going to be successful.”
A few weeks into the season, Mele started to think that too.
“Even as a freshman, this guy would show up after practice every day with a notebook,” Mele said. “He’d come in and watch and take notes on the practice. Our number one, two, three, four and five guys weren’t doing that. That was one of the first indicators. He was the first on the field and the last one off.”
In Thursday Night Football that year — WSU’s weekly scrimmage for its young players — Falk steadily earned a larger share of reps.
“By the end of the season, his numbers were crushing the other guys,” Mele said. “He put himself into position to compete for higher status.”
Falk could feel his stock rising. A month into his redshirt year, in one of his weekly phone calls with his uncle, he told Anderson, “Jeff, I can play here.”
The following spring, Falk outperformed Bruggman at practice and in the spring game.
He’s always had that confidence. Not cockiness, but confidence. He believed it.” - Jeff Anderson, Falk's uncle
That summer, Bruggman transferred to Louisville. Falk went home to Utah and, over a round of golf with his uncle, Favero and his high-school basketball coach, Logan Brown, casually proclaimed, “Hey, you guys know I’m the backup quarterback this year?”
“He’s always had that confidence. Not cockiness, but confidence. He believed it,” Anderson said. “That year, he was the backup quarterback. … As a redshirt freshman walk-on, he made the travel squad, which was unheard of.”
Falk’s big moment came sooner than anyone thought. On a rainy November night against USC at Martin Stadium in 2014, Halliday, WSU’s starting quarterback, broke his leg.
Falk replaced Halliday and threw for 346 yards and two touchdowns. The redshirt-freshman walk-on won his first start the following week against Oregon State, throwing for 471 yards and five touchdowns.
WSU lost its last two games — against Arizona State and UW — but going into 2015, the Cougars knew they had a promising talent in Falk.
That didn’t stop Leach from declaring an open competition for the starting quarterback job.
Unfazed, just as he’d done the year before against Bruggman, Falk beat out his main competitor, Peyton Bender, and became the Cougars’ starter.
Over the next two years, Falk led WSU to back-to-back bowl appearances, a slew of stirring comeback victories and a 17-9 record, rewriting the WSU record book along the way.
Falk’s final chapter
Framed portraits hang in neat rows on the wall of a long hallway leading into the basketball gym at Logan High School.
Photos of every Logan Grizzly to play college football adorn the right side of this wall of fame. The left side is reserved for Logan players who made the NFL.
Merlin Olsen, a 14-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle with the Los Angeles Rams, is the first portrait in this section. Tight end Chris Cooley, who graduated from Logan High in 2000 and stayed home to play at Utah State, was Washington’s third-round draft choice in 2004. He is the 11th Logan player to play in the NFL.
“They’re hard to come by, especially because, as you can see, we’re a small town,” said Favero. “Hopefully, Luke’s gonna be the 12th. I think, if you asked Luke, that probably had something to do with inspiring him. As competitive as Luke is, he wants his picture up there in the pro section.”
After last season, Falk briefly considered leaving early for the NFL, but ultimately returned for his senior year.
“I think it was similar to whether he goes to Cornell or WSU,” Anderson said. “I think it was in his heart the whole time that he was not leaving. He called me one day and said, ‘Jeff, I love it here, and who knows what the pros hold.’ ”
Falk’s senior season has been more of a roller coaster than anyone expected.
His Cougars are still in contention for a Pac-12 championship and he’s added to his record collection. But WSU’s Pac-12 North-leading 9-2 record also includes an ugly loss to California that saw Falk throw a career-high five interceptions, and two games — Boise State and Arizona — in which Falk was benched.
Falk started both those games, but was replaced by Tyler Hilinski because of ineffectiveness. Hilinski led the Cougs to a triple-overtime comeback win against Boise State. Against Arizona, the young backup withered, throwing four interceptions as Falk watched.
“As a competitor, you don’t want to see somebody doing your job when you think you can do it, and you’ve been doing it for a while,” Falk said. “I just had to control what I can control, and at the end of the day, doing what coach Leach has asked and going out there to help my team any way I can.”
The drastic move has driven Falk to push to greater heights.
“He’s the kind of kid, he talked to himself, reflected back inside, and he said, ‘It’s gonna make me better, Jeff. I’m gonna take it as if you’re never safe,’ ” Anderson said.
Falk’s two Pac-12 offensive player of the week awards this season came in performances following his benching. The week after Boise State, he threw six touchdowns in a victory against Oregon State, and the week after Arizona, he led an upset of No. 18 Stanford, throwing for 337 yards with three touchdowns.
Even so, Falk’s benching didn’t sit well with his supporters.
“I just think that the guy who’s your winningest quarterback of all time gives you the best chance to win all the time, barring injury,” Favero said. “You keep your all-time winningest quarterback in the game.”
Leach says his decision to play Hilinski in those two games should not be viewed as a referendum on Falk’s performance.
“I think he’s played really well. He’s accomplished more than anybody else in this conference at his position. I’d say it’s been impressive in a lot of ways,” Leach said. “Tyler is a quality player and I think he did a good job of sparking the unit a couple times. But without Luke, Tyler is not playing at this level that he is right now because of Luke’s example.”
Leach cites Falk’s conscientiousness, his astute game management and analytical nature as some of his biggest assets.
“But I think there’s also a tipping point. If you overthink things, it can slow you down,” Leach said. “When he hits a little rut, it’s from trying to make too much happen and (being) too analytical.”
The NFL is next
Leach’s decision to bench Falk in those two games has raised questions he will have to answer in the NFL’s predraft process.
NFL teams like Falk’s intelligence, mechanics and intangibles, but this season has also shown some of his flaws.
Eric Galko, an NFL draft analyst for Optimum Scouting and The Sporting News, says Falk entered his senior season viewed as a potential franchise quarterback who might be drafted as high as the second round. Galko says that could still be the case if Falk can finish the season with a marquee victory over a top-ranked defense, clinch an invitation to the Senior Bowl, and put up a strong showing there.
When he hits a little rut, it’s from trying to make too much happen and (being) too analytical.” - Mike Leach
“I know there are still a lot of people in the league who like him a lot. There are quarterback coaches who say his flaws are fixable, and the footwork is there,” Galko said. “NFL teams are concerned about the process of information: Can he adjust getting out of the offense and make adjustments when things are breaking down. … Especially when teams are more creative in blitz packages. Once things don’t go according to plan, Falk has struggled.”
But, Galko notes, all Falk needs is for one NFL coach to fall in love with his intangibles.
“His arm talent is there, the feet and the ability to throw off balance is impressive,” Galko said. “Coaches who run the West Coast offense and like to get the ball out quick, Luke Falk will be a guy they want.”
None of this NFL draft talk matters to Falk, who doesn’t really care where he is drafted next spring.
“He told me this straight up,” Anderson said. “Just like at WSU when he started, he said, ‘If I’m good enough to be a pro, it doesn’t matter when I go, what round. I’m gonna get a shot. And all I need is a shot.’ ”
But first, the Huskies await. UW is the only Pac-12 team Falk has not beaten at WSU, and the stakes are higher than ever. A victory over UW is all that stands between WSU and the program’s first Pac-12 North title.
“This is his nemesis,” Anderson said. “If he can get this one … it would be the cherry on the cake.”
The sun sits low on the horizon as Anderson waves goodbye to the two visitors driving down the dirt road that leads away from his mother’s secluded property.
The sun also is about to set on the record-setting quarterback’s college career. From Logan to Pullman, Falk has answered many questions about his ability. Now, one remains: Can the greatest walk-on in WSU history write the perfect ending to his five-year story?