On a frigid Senior Night at Martin Stadium, No. 24 Washington State’s 27-3 victory over Colorado was overshadowed by quarterback Luke Falk getting knocked out of the game in the third quarter when his head hit the turf hard after a sack.
PULLMAN – On a frigid Senior Night at Martin Stadium, No. 24 Washington State closed out its home slate in the exact opposite way it started: with a dominating 27-3 blowout win against Colorado that gave WSU its eighth win for the first time since the 2003 season.
The win showed just how far these Cougars have come since that ignominious defeat to FCS Portland State in the home opener Sept. 5.
But it might have come at a steep price. A hush descended upon the crowd of 25,121 when WSU quarterback Luke Falk, the nation’s leading passer, was knocked out of the game in the third quarter when his head hit the turf hard after a sack by Colorado defensive tackle Sampson Kafovalu.
This marked the second straight week that Falk has had to leave the game after absorbing a hard hit. He was examined for a concussion in the second quarter of the previous week’s win against UCLA, but passed all concussion tests and returned to the game in the third quarter.
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Falk lay on the turf motionless Saturday for a few seconds before he moved his arm. The redshirt sophomore quarterback gave the crowd two thumbs up and waved his arms as if to ask them to cheer louder as he was loaded onto a backboard and driven off the field.
Asked about Falk after the game, WSU coach Mike Leach said “next question” several times, then threatened to walk out of his press conference.
Asked whether he said anything to steady the team after Falk’s exit, Leach said, “Just reminded everybody that we have a job to do.”
Through that point, WSU was putting on a clinic against the Buffaloes, pitching a 17-0 shutout and well on its way to producing a complete game in all three phases.
Called into action in relief of Falk for the second week in a row, redshirt freshman Peyton Bender did not disappoint. Bender finished out the drive that resulted in Falk’s exit and got WSU close enough to attempt a 44-yard field goal, but Erik Powell pulled that wide left.
Still, on his very next drive, Bender completed 7 of 8 passes and finished in style, with a 16-yard touchdown strike to Gabe Marks in the right corner of the end zone.
Marks set a school record on that score — his 14th touchdown pass of the season that passed Jason Hill’s previous mark of 13. He led WSU’s receivers with 11 receptions for 111 yards, and became the 11th player in WSU history to eclipse the 1,000-yard receiving mark in a season. Marks now has 1,067 receiving yards on the year.
Bender finished 13 of 22 for 133 yards with one touchdown and one interception. WSU (8-3, 6-2 Pac-12) outgained Colorado (4-8, 1-7), 481 yards to 323.
“Peyton has a quick, flashy arm. The ball explodes off his hand,” Leach said. “I thought he had several nice throws. I thought he played good. He had a very impressive first drive when he came out there. I thought he moved the ball pretty well.”
Until he was knocked out of the game, Falk was his usual efficient self, showing no ill effects of the big hit he took in the UCLA game.
Despite having to play behind a retooled offensive line that featured redshirt freshman Andre Dillard making his first career start at left tackle, and Sam Flor making his first start of the season at center, Falk picked apart the Buffs’ secondary with surgical precision, completing 21 of 23 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown by halftime. He was 27 of 35 for 199 yards when he was carted off the field.
The Cougars also went back to the effective running game that they’ve displayed at times throughout the year. With his career-high 13-carry, 123-yard performance, Gerard Wicks became the first WSU running back to hit the 100-yard mark since James Montgomery rolled for 116 against Montana State in 2010.
Wicks said the WSU running game took off because Colorado played only five men in the box for most of the game, which allowed the backs to take advantage of the running lanes.
“I thought Gerard was very impressive,” Leach said. “This is probably the best game he has played. He ran extremely hard to the hole. … I thought our offensive line stepped it up in the second half and that helped out the run game.”
WSU’s three co-starter running backs combined to tally 153 rushing yards and notch their fifth 100-yard game of the year and their highest rushing total of the season.
Keith Harrington got the Cougars on the board first, scoring his second rushing touchdown of the season with a 1-yard run in the first quarter.
Then, the Cougars embarked on their second-longest offensive drive of the year, going 96 yards in 10 plays to finish with an 11-yard touchdown pass from Falk to senior receiver Dom Williams that gave WSU a 14-0 lead going into the locker room at halftime.
The only blemish on the Cougars’ offensive stat sheet in the first half was their 0-for-5 mark on third-down conversions. WSU didn’t convert on third down until the third quarter, when Marks pulled in a 10-yard reception on a drive that began off an interception by cornerback Charleston White and ended with a 31-yard field goal from Powell.
Even though redshirt freshman Cade Apsay was making his first start at quarterback for Colorado, the Buffaloes came out throwing boldly and never backed down.
But true to form, the Cougars’ defense made stops when it mattered most. In the first half, the defense forced a turnover on downs and a punt and held WSU to field goal attempts of 47 and 33 yards – both of which kicker Diego Gonzalez pulled wide right.
Gonzalez did, however, hit his third field goal attempt of the game, a 24-yard try in the third quarter that came on the drive right after Falk’s exit from the game.
The second half brought more of the same inspired play from WSU’s defense. White cut the Buffaloes’ first drive of the second half short with an interception on an Apsay pass meant for Nelson Spruce, and senior linebacker Ivan McLennan had a big third down sack on Colorado’s next offensive outing to force another punt. Senior Taylor Taliulu also came up with the first interception of his career.
Special teams did its part too, with freshman Zach Charme booting a 54-yard punt at the end of the second quarter that bounced out at the 3-yard line.
The only question mark of the game was the one that entered everyone’s mind and lingered in the background through the rest of the game right from the moment WSU’s star quarterback was carted off the field – is Luke Falk OK?