After spending the week campaigning for suspended NT Robert Barber’s reinstatement, No. 25 Washington State made a convincing argument it can play as well as it can lobby. The Cougars (7-2, 6-0 Pac-12) dominated Arizona 69-7 Saturday at Martin Stadium, their largest margin of victory in conference play in program history and highest point total since 1997, to stay tied atop Pac-12 Conference North standings with No. 5 Washington.
It also put a sweet cap on a contentious couple of days after players, parents, community members and state Sen. Michael Baumgartner pleaded Friday with the WSU Board of Regents to lift Barber’s suspension for his involvement in an off-campus party this summer.
Barber’s attorney Wednesday filed to stay the suspension. WSU filed a response in Whitman County Court Thursday, refuting Barber’s claims that the Student Conduct Board violated procedural due process.
President Kirk Schulz didn’t relent, ruling that Barber, one credit short of graduating, could finish his degree in December through online classes. The caveat: Barber couldn’t play football.
The Cougars appeared motivated by the decision.
“I think all of our team feels that (Barber) belongs here with us,” coach Mike Leach said. “The other thing I think was inspiring to everybody was the way so many different aspects of the Coug family have rallied behind (Barber). That’s one thing about Cougars. They’re very loyal, very supportive. If they feel somebody’s got a just cause, they’ll truly rally around him.
“I think that’s kind of been inspiring to our whole team. They’ll rally around kids who play here, especially if they’re not being treated justly.”
Even if Leach’s outfit entered Saturday distracted, the Cougars were too talented for an injury-riddled Arizona team (2-7, 0-6 Pac-12) that looked nothing like the group that took No. 5 Washington to overtime in its Pac-12 opener.
On the first offensive play, Wildcats QB Brandon Dawkins threw a 75-yard touchdown to WR Nate Phillips, only to see it called back when alineman was flagged for being illegally downfield.
That set the tone.
The Cougars dominated on offense, defense and special teams, jumping to a 24-0 lead by the end of the first quarter and a 38-7 lead by halftime in front of a sold-out Dad’s weekend crowd.
At that point, the question became when Leach would lift QB Luke Falk, who in the past two weeks took a myriad of hits that left him limping.
Falk, a fourth-year junior, Monday denied a Bleacher Report tweet claiming he planned to declare early for the NFL draft.
Saturday he appeared every bit an NFL prospect, completing 22 consecutive passes and going 32 of 35 for 311 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Falk’s 91.4 percent completion rate was the highest for any quarterback with 35 or more pass attempts since at least 2004, according to ESPN.
Leach pulled Falk late in the third quarter with the Cougars leading by 45 points. The Cougars kept throwing, with second-year freshman QB Tyler Hilinski finding WR River Cracraft for a 71-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. Hilinski finished 15 of 17 for 163 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
WSU had more touchdown passes (six) than incompletions (five). Fourteen players caught passes. The combined completion rate (90.4) set a single-game FBS record for teams that attempted at least 30 passes.
“I’m just really proud of the guys,” Falk said afterward on 710 ESPN Seattle. “I thought the offensive line did a tremendous job. I can’t even count how many times I got hit because there weren’t that many. I thought the receivers did an outstanding job, and the running backs.”
The Air Raid offense was again potent on the ground, totaling 140 yards on 30 attempts to help WSU outgain Arizona 614-286 in total hashes. Without Barber for the second consecutive week, the defense forced three turnovers, the first coming when LB/S Shalom Launi intercepted Dawkins in the first quarter. That set up an eight-yard touchdown pass from Falk to RB James Williams.
“I think he’s doing an outstanding job,” Falk said of Williams. “He always makes one guy miss. I think the other backs back there are our most sound group. Really they’re all just a bunch of playmakers. You get the ball in their hands and good things are going to happen.”
Washington State hosts California next week at Martin Stadium, then finishes the regular season with a road matchup against Colorado before a Black Friday Apple Cup in Pullman.
In what’s becoming a weekly occurrence, Leach was asked if he was impressed with WSU’s turnaround after an 0-2 start.
“For another 12 hours,” Leach said. “By tomorrow at this time I’ll be meaner than hell again.”