Luke Falk, hurt in the first half, comes back to lead another clutch fourth-quarter drive and connects with Gabe Marks on a 21-yard touchdown with three seconds left to lift the Cougars to a 31-27 win over the Bruins.
PASADENA, Calif. — The remainder of Washington State’s charmed season hung in the balance late in the second quarter Saturday of the Cougars’ back-and-forth duel against No. 18 UCLA as starting quarterback Luke Falk lay crumpled on the Rose Bowl turf.
The Cougars held their breath, wondering if their leader had just been knocked out for the game.
Instead, the Cougars’ redshirt sophomore quarterback returned in the second half and added to his growing legacy. Falk engineered his fourth fourth quarter comeback of the season with a stirring seven-play, 75-yard drive in 1:09 that was capped by Gabe Marks’ tremendous catch with three seconds left for a winning 21-yard touchdown reception.
With that, the Cougars (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) beat UCLA 31-27 to notch their first victory over a top 25 team since 2013 and claim their biggest win over a ranked opponent since they beat No. 16 Oregon in 2006.
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“Luke’s really tough. I’ve always admired that trait about him,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our players.”
Falk finished the evening by completing 38 of 53 passes for 331 yards and two touchdowns. With his second touchdown pass of the night — the game-winner to Marks — he passed Ryan Leaf and Conner Halliday to set the WSU single season record for touchdown passes (35).
Marks led the Cougars with 12 receptions for 92 yards, and passed Michael Bumpus’ (195 receptions) on WSU’s career receptions list.
It was a statement win for a program that has languished in the bottom half of the Pac-12 for the last decade.
“That was a huge game for our program and the step that we’re trying to take the program. We needed to come out 7-3 tonight to keep ourselves on pace with what we’re trying to do. It was a great win for the program and we’re going to build off this,” said Marks, who made the winning reception despite the fact the UCLA defender was called for interference. “What do you think it says (about our program)? That we’re pretty good.”
The victory involved a complete team effort from the Cougars, who got a couple of huge plays on special teams, and a crucial stand-in performance with a touchdown from backup quarterback Peyton Bender.
UCLA (7-3, 4-3) blitzed hard and heavy from the opening play, and Falk already had absorbed three sacks by the time defensive lineman Jacob Tuioti-Mariner got to him late in the second quarter. Falk’s head slammed hard against the turf with the Cougars trailing 13-7.
To that point, WSU’s defense had kept the offense in the game, bending but never breaking, as is its wont, and coming up with two big goal-line stands to force the Bruins to settle for field goals of 22 and 23 yards instead of touchdowns.
Then came the hit that made the Cougars hold their breath. Tuioti-Mariner engulfed Falk, and the WSU quarterback landed hard. One of Cougars’ offensive linemen tried to help Falk up, but the quarterback stayed down, trying, but failing, to crawl off the turf.
The medical staff helped Falk off the field, and after a preliminary examination on the bench, they escorted him back to the locker room. Falk said he went through a battery of concussion tests and “passed with flying colors.”
But in the final minutes of the first half, the Cougars’ special teams units and backup quarterback Peyton Bender held down the fort until Falk was able to return.
The Cougars’ special teams unit, which blocked a punt earlier in the game, came up with their second big play of the evening when Nate DeRider drilled UCLA punt returner Ishmael Adams hard enough to force a fumble that WSU recovered at the UCLA 14-yard line.
Bender led the offense onto the field, the spotlight on him as he earned his first significant minutes on the road. The redshirt freshman started out shaky, throwing two incompletions before he too got a taste of UCLA’s relentless pass rush when he was sacked by Matt Dickerson on third down.
The sack was called back for defensive holding, and on the very next play, Bender connected with Dom Williams on a 7-yard fade that gave him his first career touchdown pass and gave the Cougars a 14-13 lead.
The Bruins ended the half with a 16-14 lead, thanks to a 38-yard field goal from Kai’mi Fairbairn.
But WSU came out of the tunnel after halftime with the edge, because Falk was back in the game.
A fearless 13-yard run from Falk on third down and a 16-yard reception by Kyle Sweet — who was starting in place of River Cracraft at inside receiver — got the Cougars into UCLA’s red zone and ultimately set up Falk’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Marks that gave WSU a 21-16 lead.
The Cougars’ defense then forced a timely turnover when Hercules Mata’afa caused Darren Andrews to fumble on the end of a reception and Darrien Molton recovered for WSU.
As the fourth quarter began, the Cougars managed to extend the lead to eight points with a 45-yard, 15-play drive that ended with a 25-yard field goal from Erik Powell.
But UCLA stayed in the game with a field goal of its own — this time a 38-yard conversion from Fairbairn.
Falk had the Cougars within striking distance again when he threw a costly interception to Jaleel Wadood in the end zone with 3:13 left in the game.
Suddenly, UCLA was right back in it, and the Bruins’ sensational freshman quarterback, Josh Rosen, showed exactly why he’ll be the talk of the Pac-12 for years to come, as he found a seam in the Cougars’ defense and reeled off a 37-yard touchdown run. He then connected with Thomas Duarte on the two-point conversion to give UCLA a 27-24 lead with 1:09 left.
The problem, however, was that the Bruins had left Falk way too much time.
“Here we go,” Falk thought, as he led the offense back onto the field.
“As a little kid you dream about having a game winning drive in the Rose Bowl,” Falk said.
The Cougs had been there before, at Rutgers and at Oregon, when they found themselves needing one final offensive thrust in the dying minutes to win the game.
“I just said, ‘Let’s go out and have some fun and do our job,'” Falk said. “And that’s what we did.”
Falk needed only seven plays to get the Cougars into the end zone and sling that final touchdown pass to Marks.
“As a little kid you dream about having a game-winning drive in the Rose Bowl. It was fun to get that win because I lived down here for a bit, and it fun to get that win against some of my former teammates,” said Falk, who played for Southern California football powerhouse Oaks Christian at the start of his junior year before he moved back to Logan, Utah. “That’ll be one I look back on for a while.”
“I’m proud of our guys,” Mike Leach said. “It was one of those deals, we said 60 minutes, and we needed all 60 minutes from them. This was a good one, our team did a good job hanging in there and we had a lot of Coug fans there in the stands to the point where you could see red and you could even hear them.
“There were a lot of crimson people here, and I appreciate them sticking with us.”