The Washington State Cougars pulled off a miraculous comeback against the Boise State Broncos to keep their undefeated season alive. But this was no ordinary comeback. The Cougars were brought back by backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski after Luke Falk left due to a head injury. Falk was benched the drive before due to a lackluster performance. His inability to push the ball down the field has been his Achilles heel in the past, and it reared its ugly head again against the Broncos. There were open receivers down the field, but he often decided to check the ball down instead of giving his receivers a chance to make a big play.
Although Falk struggled mightily before the injury, he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He doesn’t look like a future first round pick like some have presumed in the past. He’s playing like a second day developmental quarterback. NFL teams will likely be concerned by this performance, but Falk will be happy that the Cougars won the game. He’s always put the team ahead of his individual accomplishments. Falk broke the Cougars record for career passing yards in this game prior to his injury, but that hasn’t been the talking point all week.
When Hilinski entered the game, the Cougars were behind 31-10. Hilinski led the Cougars to two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. An ill-advised throw by Boise State quarterback Montell Cozart resulted in a pick six, which was the turning point in the game. The Cougars were able to win on a touchdown pass by Hilinski in the third overtime. Some people speculated that Falk might get Alex Smith’d for Hilinski, but Leach shut down those rumors quickly by asserting that Falk would be the starter going forward.
However, this injury is scarier than most head injuries. It’s never easy seeing a player go down due to a head injury, but it’s especially dangerous when it’s not the first time. Falk has suffered multiple head injuries in the past, including a concussion that knocked him out cold. Falk tends to hold on to the ball for a long period of time looking for receivers to break open. This style of play leads to more quarterback hits. The Cougars run a lot of shallow crossing routes, which often take a long time to develop. When the opposing defense is in zone defense, the outside receivers often cross the field and settle down between the defenders. This play can take a long time to develop. The Cougars have one of the best offensive lines in the Pac-12, but even they can’t hold their blocks indefinitely. If Falk wants to avoid another head injury and potentially losing his starting job, he’ll have to do a better job of getting rid of the ball quickly.
The Cougars offense needs to do a better job of picking up chunk plays. The run game was nonexistent against Boise State. The Broncos defense knew the Cougars weren’t going to throw the ball deep, which allowed them to squeeze their defense down near the line of scrimmage. This made it difficult to run the ball. Now that receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft have graduated, Luke Falk needs to trust his receivers to make plays down the field. If he decides to hold onto the ball for an extended period of time, he should try to push the ball down the field. The Cougars don’t have the elite receivers that they had in 2016, but they still have numerous pass catchers that can make plays.
The Cougars are undefeated, so they can still achieve all of their goals. They are a sleeper team in the Pac-12 that could compete with rivals Washington and perennial Pac-12 contender USC. If Washington State wants to compete with the best teams in the Pac-12, they must improve their offense going forward. Their defense has been an issue in years past, but they look stronger than ever this year. Mike Leach’s offense can’t afford to struggle anymore. The Cougars are used to adversity, coming off of back-to-back strong seasons after losing opening games to FCS opponents. The Cougars got the monkey off their back this year by defeating an FCS foe, but need to keep their foot on the gas. These next few games will test the resiliency of Falk and the Cougars offense. If they step up to the challenge, they’ll have a chance to defeat every team on their schedule.