Know what to make of the quarterback controversy at Washington State? Any idea how something like this could have even started? Have you ever seen a onetime Heisman Trophy candidate who has broken school and Pac-12 Conference passing records get benched like Luke Falk was Saturday night in Tucson?
To be honest, my answer is “no” to all three questions. Maybe we’ll find out more on Monday afternoon when Mike Leach holds his weekly press conference from Pullman, where I suspect he’ll be peppered with more questions from reporters trying to understand the WSU coach’s thought process during the 57-38 loss to Arizona.
If you’re not familiar with the details, backup Tyler Hilinski replaced Falk late in the second quarter with the Cougars trailing 20-7. Falk had gone 13-for-23 for 93 yards and a touchdown when he was yanked. His stats didn’t jump off the page, but he played mistake-free football with no interceptions. The Cougars went three-and-out on two straight possessions, and I’m guessing Leach lost his patience with Falk and summoned Hilinski to see what he could do.
It worked once before this season – in the second game of the year, Hilinski rallied Washington State from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit to a double-overtime win. In that game, Falk was initially benched for poor performance and was later replaced after appearing to get hurt.
In the Arizona game, Hilinski took over and drove WSU 75 yards to a touchdown, completing 8 of 9 passes. He quarterbacked the Cougs the rest of the way while Falk paced the sideline and was caught shaking his head at one point by the Pac-12 Network.
Leach clearly felt that Hilinski gave the Cougars the best chance to win. In his defense, Hilinski completed 45 of 61 for 509 yards and threw two touchdown passes and ran for two other scores. All of this in a little less than 32 minutes of playing time. And put the stats aside, Hilinski just looked sharper than Falk in almost every way aside from one very important department – turnovers.
Hilinski threw four interceptions, including one in the Arizona end zone and another that resulted in a pick six. I didn’t necessarily feel like Hilinski should be replaced by Falk after the first interception. But after the second interception, I started to wonder. After the third, I couldn’t make sense of it, and after the fourth, it’s like, are you kidding me? Is the coach watching the same game we are? Then again, by the time he threw his fourth, it was lights out anyway – the Wildcats led by 21 with too little time to catch up. It would have been even worse to bring Falk back and have him mop up.
But let’s put all of that second-guessing aside with the interceptions and just consider whether Falk deserved to be benched in the first place. Leach said after the game that Falk was overanalyzing things, and I don’t know what that means exactly, but I’ll take a shot – Hilinski was out there going through his progressions and just lettin’ it rip while Falk was maybe thinking too much and getting in his own way.
OK, fine. No problem with Hilinski taking over for the late second quarter drive. No problem with his starting the second half, the argument being that you go with the hot hand. But after his first interception, I would have gone back to Falk.
Looking at the best-possible-case scenario for the game itself, the Cougars would have rallied to beat the Wildcats and then, I don’t know, maybe you start Hilinski against Stanford this Saturday at Martin Stadium. (For what it’s worth, I ran a Twitter poll Saturday night, and 81 percent of the voters think Falk should start the Stanford game.)
But here we are in the midst of the worst-case scenario. The Cougs lost, you have a full-blown quarterback controversy, and a season that got off to a 6-0 start could turn into a 7-5 finish with difficult games left against Stanford, Utah and Washington. Then again, if they can somehow pull it together, with three straight wins, the Cougars could win the Pac-12 North.
I can’t help but look at it from a different perspective. Falk deserved better treatment than he got Saturday night. In fact, I’d say he got a raw deal. It’s not like you’re benching some mediocre quarterback, this is Luke Falk we’re talking about, the most prolific passer in Washington State history. And the biggest stat of all? No one has ever quarterbacked the Cougs to more victories than Falk with 25. And you don’t give him a fair shot at No. 26?
I know he’s looked uncharacteristically off at times this year. But where did he set that bar? Apparently so high that when he doesn’t reach it in every game, he’s maligned, and I’d say unfairly maligned in Tucson. If ever a kid deserved all kinds of slack, it’s Luke Falk. If he’s angry about being pulled and not going back in the game, I don’t blame him.
But for all I know, he might come out on Monday and say that he understands why he was benched and needs to be sharper, that he’ll work on it this week and hope for the best. If he says that, I’m calling shenanigans. If I’m him, I feel like I got thrown under a fleet of buses. I’m thinking: “This is what I get for all we’ve accomplished and all I’ve given to this program?” Again, we’re talking about a quarterback who will have led Washington State to three consecutive bowl games, a feat not accomplished by many.
It’s probably not even worth questioning Leach’s decision to pull Falk and keep him out of the game. He knows more about his players and college football than I do, but even if you think he screwed up, why challenge him when he’s most apt to bristle anyway and either say you’re stupid or intimate that you are if you disagree with his decision.
I’m more concerned about Falk’s well-being than Washington State’s Pac-12 North title chances. I hope his college experience wasn’t tarnished by a questionable coaching decision. In my mind, Leach screwed up in the big picture.
Thing is, I get it, it’s always about “what have you done for me lately?” But some people have built up enough credits to warrant a longer leash in tough times, and Luke Falk is one of them.