Luke Falk throws for five touchdown passes and the Cougars smash California 56-21 to remain the only unbeaten team in the Pac-12 and take over the North lead from Washington.
PULLMAN — For one week at least, Washington State sits in the pole position in the Pac-12 North.
The 23rd-ranked Cougars’ 56-21 win over California on Saturday night at Martin Stadium, coupled with USC’s upset of No. 4 UW earlier in the day, means WSU is now the only team undefeated in Pac-12 play.
The win was historic on several fronts for the Cougars (8-2 overall, 7-0 Pac-12).
WSU by the numbers
50 Saturday marked the first time in team history WSU scored more than 50 points in consecutive conference games. The Cougars beat Arizona, 69-7, on Nov. 5.
84 Career touchdown passes for Luke Falk, second only to Connor Halliday (90) in school history.
7-0 WSU improved to 7-0 in conference play for the first time ever. The Cougars have games against Colorado and Washington remaining.
When Gabe Marks hauled in a 7-yard touchdown pass from Luke Falk in the right corner of the end zone with 7:11 left, WSU’s fiery senior receiver broke former Colorado receiver Nelson Spruce’s record to become the Pac-12’s all-time leader in career receptions.
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The catch was Marks’ 295th, and his 87 receiving yards against Cal also helped him vault Marquess Wilson to become WSU’s all-time leader in receiving yards. Marks has 3,328 career yards, with at least three games remaining.
“That record was a long time in the making, so I’m very proud of him,” coach Mike Leach said. “That’s a huge body of work he’s a part of. Gabe would be the first to tell you there’s a lot of teammates who helped him get that. He’s had a very impressive career.”
But the win came on a bittersweet note when senior slot receiver River Cracraft went down in the middle of the third quarter with what looked like a left leg injury.
Cracraft, who had three touchdown receptions in the game to equal his career high, crumpled to the turf at the end of a third-down reception and struggled to get up.
He limped off the field supported by the trainers, unable to put much weight on his left leg. Cracraft managed to limp to the locker room on his own power, but did not return to the game.
Cracraft still finished as as the Cougars’ leading receiver, with nine receptions for 87 yards and the three touchdowns. Cracraft scored on passes of 22 and 5 yards in the second quarter, then followed with a beautiful 9-yard grab in the third quarter that was finished off with a one-foot toe touch in the corner of the end zone.
With the win over California, the Cougars became the first team in program history to start 7-0 in conference play, and the first team since 1930 to reel off eight straight wins.
As Week 11 comes to a close, WSU is one of three Power Five teams nationally — along with No. 1 Alabama and No. 11 Oklahoma — undefeated in conference play.
“I have to give Washington State credit,” California coach Sonny Dykes said. “They played well tonight. They’re a good football team and are hot right now. It was not our best performance.”
The Cougars took care of business against Cal in the same, methodical fashion with which they demolished Arizona last week, holding the Golden Bears to their fewest points of the season.
“I thought we’ve executed well; if we execute poorly then I think we’ve rallied to come out the next series sharp,” Leach said of his team’s back-to-back 50-plus-point games. “I think we’ve done a good job recovering to come back in sync if we get out of sync. We got more opportunistic as we get older, more opportunistic in key situations, which I think is helpful.”
The game began on a bright note for WSU when Kaleb Fossum broke a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown that put Washington State up 7-0. It was the Cougars’ first punt-return score since 2005.
Then it started to look like the kind of night where the Cougars were doomed to have every big play called back by a penalty.
Despite having a 34-yard James Williams run, and a 12-yard touchdown pass from Falk to Robert Lewis negated by penalties on the same drive, WSU pushed forth, finally scoring a second touchdown when Gerard Wicks battered his way into the end zone on a 2-yard run.
Cal hung around for a while. The Golden Bears’ first score came at the start of the second quarter, when Davis Webb hit freshman receiver Demetrius Robertson on a 59-yard reception in double coverage and two plays later Webb found Jordan Veasy in the end zone on an 8-yard pass.
But then the Cougars’ offense clicked. WSU scored 21 unanswered points on the Falk-to-Cracraft connections, and never let Cal back into the game. Falk was pulled for Tyler Hilinski with 3:45 left and WSU up 56-21. Falk finished 36 of 50 for 373 yards and tied his season high with five touchdown passes.
The defense also contributed a lot. It opened the game with a three-and-out, and with WSU ahead 21-7 in the second quarter, Nate DeRider picked off Webb in the end zone.
DeRider — filling in for Isaac Dotson at will linebacker — left the game for a few series midway through. DeRider sacked Webb for a loss of nine yards early in the third quarter and came up holding his left shoulder, but he later returned.
Cal scored again when Webb found Bug Rivera on a 19-yard pass in the third quarter, and dashed the Cougars’ defense with an explosive play early in the fourth quarter when Webb uncorked a 57-yard touchdown pass to Robertson to make it WSU 42, Cal 21.
But even though the Cal offense had 525 yards (WSU had 654), the Golden Bears couldn’t stop the Cougars. Williams padded the score with a 12-yard touchdown rush in the fourth quarter, Marks made his record-breaking grab, and the Cougs finished their night as the leaders of the Pac-12.
“We continue to elevate our excitement to play as the season has gone on,” Leach said.
These are uncharted waters for a Cougar program that has been dormant for the last decade. Two tough games against ranked Colorado and UW remain, but for now, WSU is in the driver’s seat, gunning for a Pac-12 North title, its first appearance in the Pac-12 championship game, and — dare we say it? — perhaps its first Rose Bowl bid in 14 years.