For two quarters Saturday night, Washington State reverted to the Paul Wulff era. The Cougars missed tackles. They blew scoring chances. At halftime, they trailed Oregon State, perhaps the worst team in the Pac-12, 24-6, after looking some combination of tired, complacent and unprepared.
It forced coach Mike Leach in the second quarter into calling the entire team around him for one of his patented profanity-laced lectures.
“It was basically a preview to what I said to them at halftime,” Leach said. “And it probably contains some words that your children should never use.”
The message resonated in the third quarter, when quarterback Luke Falk helped the Cougars reel off 22 consecutive points before holding on for a 35-31 win in Corvallis.
“I thought certainly in the first half we got out-coached and we got out-played,” Leach said. “In the second half, I thought we were more disciplined about doing our jobs and doing them harder. I know that’s simple and not as dramatic as you’d like, and it’s not as dramatic as that game, but that’s what happened.”
It marked WSU’s sixth consecutive victory, the program’s longest winning streak since 2003. And it remained tied atop the Pac-12 North standings with No. 4 Washington (8-0, 5-0 Pac-12).
In a sloppy game that lived up to its #Pac12AfterDark billing, Falk was the difference. The fourth-year junior went 33 of 46 for 415 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. A sizable chunk of those passing yards came in the aforementioned third quarter, when he completed 10 of 11 throws for 200 yards and three scores, despite taking a variety of big hits from the Beavers’ defensive line.
“We’re just a real resilient group right there,” Falk said after getting battered for the second consecutive week. “We came in at halftime, nothing really went our way, but coach gave us a message and really went out and there and responded.”
Well, not immediately.
WSU opened the second half with a three-and-out, then failed to execute a fake punt inside their own territory.
“That was a massive miscommunication,” Leach said. “That was a total miscommunication and we weren’t interested in faking that punt.”
But WSU forced a three-and-out thanks to DE Garrett McBroom’s sack, keeping OSU from adding to the lead.
Trailing 24-6, Falk found RB Jamal Morrow for a 66-yard score, then a two-point conversion to trim the deficit to 10. Following another stop, Falk hit fifth-year senior WR Gabe Marks in triple coverage for a 37-yard touchdown.
“The play broke down,” Falk said. “Honestly I saw Gabe and just threw it up.
‘Throwitupto9’: That’s his Twitter handle, so I guess you got to do it.”
Late in the third quarter, Falk found Marks again, this time on a fly pattern, for a 28-yard score to put WSU up 28-24. Marks finished with eight catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns, becoming WSU’s all-time leader in touchdown receptions, with 33.
“I don’t know if I was feeling it out there, but I made some plays,” Marks said. “(Falk) threw it up to me, finally, and I figured if I drop this I’ll probably never get thrown to again.”
That should have ended matters against an over-matched OSU team (2-6, 1-4 Pac-12) playing with third-string freshman quarterback Marcus McMaryion.
That’s not the way this WSU team operates.
Early in the fourth quarter, returner Kaleb Fossum botched a punt, setting up the Beavers at the WSU 3-yard line. RB Ryan Nall scored on the next play to retake the lead, but the Cougars responded with a seven-play, 80-yard drive, capped by Falk’s one-yard touchdown pass to WR Robert Lewis.
The defense, maligned in the first half, forced a critical fourth-down stop later in the fourth quarter after WSU opted to go for it on fourth and two at their own 43 with less than seven minutes remaining.
Leach referred to it as another miscommunication. He didn’t specify whether the play call — a pass over the middle to WR River Cracraft — or the decision to go for it, was the source of confusion.
Regardless, the Cougars won on the road for the second consecutive week, improving to 5-0 in the Pac-12 for the first time since 2002. That was the last season they went to the Rose Bowl, a feat still possible with home games the next two weeks against Arizona and Cal. The Cougars finish the regular season with a trip to No. 23 Colorado, then the Apple Cup on Black Friday in Pullman.
In the meantime, WSU is bowl eligible for the second in a row and third time in Leach’s five years in Pullman.
Leach, asked if there was a positive takeaway from Saturday’s win, gave in, if only slightly.
“Well most teams wouldn’t have found a way to win it,” he said. “Most teams in the country wouldn’t have been able to win a game like this, on the road, two weeks in a row on the road. I’m very proud to say that we did.”