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Luke Falk, No. 19 Washington State head into Utah

Luke Falk will lead the No. 19 Cougars into his home state to face the Utes on Saturday. (AP)

SALT LAKE CITY – You could say the football circle is now complete for Luke Falk.

The Washington State quarterback returns to his home state this week in a much different place than when he left. When the senior leads the 19th-ranked Cougars against Utah on Saturday, he will enter the game as the Pac-12 leader in career passing yards.

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That record finally came into Falk’s possession when he threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns to help the Cougars beat Stanford 24-21 on Saturday. Falk has 13,806 career passing yards, breaking the mark of 13,600, set by Sean Mannion, the former Oregon State and current Los Angeles Rams quarterback.

Falk has the ninth-most passing yards in FBS history. For him, owning such a significant Pac-12 record is as much a testament to the work his teammates have put in as it is his own accomplishments.

“There’s been a lot of guys on this ride and it’s been super fun,” Falk said. “So I think it’s a team award in terms of all the hard work we’ve put into it.”

Emerging as a prolific passer isn’t what many people expected to unfold for him when Falk joined the Cougars as a walk-on. He received scant attention on the recruiting trail coming out of Logan High in northern Utah and held virtually no scholarship offers.

Falk wasted no time working his way up the depth chart and became Connor Halliday’s backup as a redshirt freshman. He took over as a starter for an injured Halliday during the final three games of the 2014 season and hasn’t looked back.

With two regular-season games left, Falk is the nation’s active leader in passing yards. His 115 career touchdown passes rank second behind Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (116), and his career 68.7 career completion percentage is third-best among active quarterbacks.

Washington State coach Mike Leach credits Falk with elevating his play through a combination of focus and determination.

“This had more to do with persistence and hard work than it did just straight-up natural talent,” Leach said. “In a lot of cases, that’s what exists with great players. He’s a prime example of that.”

The Cougars (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12) need road victories over Utah and Washington to claim a Pac-12 North crown and a spot in the Pac-12 championship. The Utes (5-4, 2-4) need a win in one of its last three games to become bowl eligible and reach a bowl game for the fourth straight season.

A four-game losing streak sent Utah tumbling to the Pac-12 South cellar. The Utes finally snapped the skid with a 48-17 victory over UCLA last Friday. Utah came alive on both sides of the ball against the Bruins. They totaled 506 yards on offense and held UCLA to just 70 yards in the second half.

“There was a lot more energy on the offensive side,” said sophomore running back Zack Moss, who finished with a career-high 153 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. “We just felt like we knew we could score every time we touched the ball and we didn’t get mad at ourselves. I think every time we got an opportunity to go out there, we did what we could do.”

The degree of difficulty increases for Utah’s offense this week. Washington State ranks second in the Pac-12 in total defense (297.5 yards per game) and third in scoring defense (22.7 points per game). The Cougars are first in pass efficiency defense (104.20 rating).

It helps that the Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley is again looking like the dynamic playmaker he was before injuring his shoulder against Arizona. Huntley’s 66.7 percent completion rate ranks eighth nationally among FBS quarterbacks. He has thrown for 1,648 yards and 12 touchdowns in seven games.

The sophomore also has totaled 381 rushing yards on 98 carries this season — ranking second among Pac-12 quarterbacks in rushing yards per game (54.4).

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said the goal is to tailor the offense to fit Huntley’s strengths — and the Utes are doing a better job of achieving that goal.

“If you have a dual threat like Tyler, you want to make sure you involve him in the run game and get him going,” Whittingham said. “There is more than one way to make an offense go. If you have a great pocket guy, just lights out throwing the football, then you gravitate in that direction. Tyler happens to be a guy that can do both.”

The series between Washington State and Utah is tied 7-7. The Cougars have won two straight over the Utes — including a 28-27 come-from-behind victory in Salt Lake City in 2014 in the most recent game in the series.

-STATS