Oregon lost six players to injury against Cal. Now the Ducks have to take on a Cougars team coming off a big win over USC

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PULLMAN – Never one to mince his words, Washington State coach Mike Leach has been critical of his senior quarterback at certain junctures this season.

Particularly early on, when Luke Falk struggled enough against Boise State that Leach benched him for a series, then later said he thought Falk had been overly analytical and tried to press too hard.

But, Leach had nothing but praise for Falk as he held court before a gaggle of media on Friday night while the amped-up crowd streamed out the exits of Martin Stadium after WSU’s huge 30-27 upset of the then-No. 5 USC Trojans,

“I thought he played good,” Leach said. “I thought there was a time early in the game where he held the whole thing together.”

On a night that pitted two of the best quarterbacks in the country against one another, Falk emerged from the fire looking more worthy of Heisman candidacy than the Trojans’ Sam Darnold.

In just the second loss of his 15-game career as USC’s starter, Darnold completed just over half his passes, finishing 15 of 29 for a season-low 164 yards with an interception. Falk, conversely, earned career win No. 23, and now needs only one more ‘W’ to tie Jason Gesser as the winningest quarterback in WSU football history.

He could hit that milestone next Saturday, when the Cougars embark on their first road challenge of the season against Oregon in Eugene.

Oregon isn’t as highly regarded this year in Willie Taggart’s first season as head coach, but the Ducks are still 4-1 with wins over Cal and Nebraska.

However, their latest victory against the Bears came at a high price. The Ducks lost six players to injuries during the game: starting quarterback Justin Herbert, his backup, Taylor Alie, star running back Royce Freeman, starting receiver Dillon Mitchell, right guard Jake Pisarchik and mike linebacker Kaulana Apelu.

Pisarchik got treatment and was able to re-enter the game. Also, starting safety Tyree Robinson was ejected for targeting, but because the penalty came in the first half, he will not have to miss any time against the Cougars.

The Ducks finished the game with freshman Braxton Burmeister at quarterback, and it’s unclear as to which quarterback they’ll use against WSU, though, a report surfaced Saturday night that Herbert has a broken collarbone.

The injury bug seems to have taken up residence in Eugene. Oregon played Cal without receiver Charles Nelson, tight end Jacob Breeland, backup mike linebacker A.J. Hotchkins and starting safety Nick Pickett, who sat out with an assortment of injuries.

The status of all these players is still unknown ahead of Oregon’s game against WSU next weekend, but it’s unlikely that Oregon will have everyone back. So for the second week in a row, WSU will face an injury depleted team. One that will likely be without its starting quarterback.

Meanwhile, Falk is if coming off a solid performance against the Trojans, where he went 34 of 51 for 340 passing yards and two passing touchdowns. Falk also tied Marcus Mariota for second place on the Pac-12 career passing touchdown list with 105 scores, and became the Pac-12 record holder for most career pass completions, with 1,211.

Though Falk also threw one interception – a shaky ball that the Trojans’ Uchenna Nwosu tipped into a onrushing Cougar before recovering the rebound for USC at WSU’s 3 yard line – Falk’s overall performance helped the Cougars overcome some early mistakes.

“Luke managed the game great,” said right guard B.J. Salmonson. “He’s the leader of us all.”

The Cougars’ offense was a little antsy to start the USC game. WSU’s receivers dropped at least seven catchable passes Friday night, and four of these came in the first half.

On the opening possession, freshman receiver Jamire Calvin had a ball go through his hands in the back of the end zone. On the Cougars’ second offensive series, Tavares Martin Jr. dropped what would have been a third down conversion on a crossing route. Kyle Sweet had a pass go through his hands in the second quarter, and Renard Bell caught one on third-and-five, but released it when USC’s Ajene Harris knocked the stuffing out of him as he tried to come down with the ball.

Calvin’s mistake cost WSU an early touchdown. Martin Jr and Bell’s misses ultimately forced the Cougars to punt. But due in part to WSU’s ferocious defense, and in part to Falk’s calm command of the offense, the Cougars never unraveled.

“We were out there too eager to be out there and stuff wasn’t as precise as it needed to be,” Leach said. “(Falk) battled some of that himself. I thought he stayed within himself, the unit responded, and I thought we finished the first half real well and we did a pretty good job in that second half other than a hollow spot in the third.”

With USC not giving up much on the outside, Falk adapted and worked the short passing game and the run game instead.

The result?

The Cougars rushed for a season-high 155 yards behind Jamal Morrow’s six carries that yielded 91 yards and a rushing touchdown. They also outgained USC 462 to 327, and converted eight of 18 third downs.

“They were switching it up… I think the only thing consistent was that those linebackers walked up (into the box) all night,” Falk said. “We were just trying to take what they gave us. We did a pretty good job of attacking leverage. I think we should have scored a few more points. That was a real good defense. There’s a lot of great players on that team.”

Now, the 5-0 Cougars turn their attention to the Ducks. The last time the two teams clashed at Autzen Stadium in 2015, they produced a thriller of a game that WSU won in overtime.

After riding the emotional high that came with Friday night’s upset win, it’s important that the Cougars now recalibrate and come back down to earth.

“If you don’t get your feet back on the ground, you’re just trading one game for the next game, and you let yourself down,” Leach said. “We’ll see how tough we are.”