Luke Falk conquers injury, carries Washington State to spoil ASU football's Homecoming

The Cougars squeaked past the Sun Devils on the heels of their veteran quarterback

“If one drive doesn’t go well, he comes back ready to play the next drive.”

Forget about what Todd Graham said to Mike Leach after the game. Forget about Leach’s pettiness last year, this week, and in his postgame press conference where he “respectfully” declined to answer questions with all of the sincerity of the presidential candidate he has endorsed, whose likeness was depicted in a photo plastered on one of Washington State’s play cards).

Leach’s comments, as callous and crass as they were, were enough of a distraction that it enabled the Cougars (5-2, 4-0 Pac-12) to have won the psychological battle long before they won the war on the field.

What mattered about Saturday’s game was the aforementioned quote from Leach about his redshirt junior quarterback, among other things – and it was the main difference for ASU football in their first home loss to Washington State since 2001.

Two seasons ago, Luke Falk stumbled into Sun Devil Stadium like an overconfident puppy who had mistakenly wandered into the lair of The Beast in The Sandlot to retrieve his ball. He still put the Sun Devils (5-3, 2-3 Pac-12) on notice, and after dropping 601 yards, three touchdowns, and four interceptions in a 52-31 loss (Taylor Kelly’s Senior Day win) he emerged on the scene in 2015 as one of the top passers in the conference and the country, despite being banged up throughout it.

In Pullman, Washington last year, he bounced back to the tune of 497 yards and five touchdowns in a 38-24 win that set the Cougars on the periphery of the national radar.

On the ASU sideline Saturday, redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins wasn’t 100 percent, that much Graham confirmed after being asked why his starter left the game after the just the second Sun Devil drive. Freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole wasn’t so much a quarterback as much as third-down specialist, with junior running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard taking command under center in the Sparky formation.

“I thought Dillon battled,” Graham said. “A freshman who hadn’t had very many reps, I thought he did a great job. Manny has great courage. I’ve never seen a guy with more courage than him.”

Falk overcame playing on the road and a running game that spent more time going backward than forward to bear the burdens of the Cougars on his right shoulder. Falk spread out his 398 passing yards amongst 11 different receivers. Redshirt senior Gabe Marks led the way with 107 yards and a touchdown on eight catches, and senior River Cracraft hauled in seven catches for 79 yards. The pair became the first two teammates in the Pac-12 to record 200 career catches apiece.

“It’s a great luxury, once you get it in their hands,” Falk said. “Your job is a little easier.”

To their credit, the Sun Devils put the pressure on Falk – junior Devilbacker Koron Crump sacked him three times alone, of the seven ASU registered in total.

“I didn’t have my eyes in the right place early on,” Falk said. “Everything that they did today I basically had seen on film and stuff. I just needed to get a beat on it.”

The Cougars had been the Pac-12’s best run defense heading into Saturday’s game, but the Sun Devils shut down the Washington State backfield to a paltry 52 negative rushing yards.

“They loaded the box, gave different looks and different fronts,” Falk said of the ASU defense. “If the numbers aren’t right we aren’t going to do it. It’s a bad call. We are a pass heavy team, so why wouldn’t we do it (pass). If they want to load the box that’s what this offense is designed around is to throw the crap out of it.”

The possibility that the ASU defense and special teams were finally clicking gave way to optimism for the offense to do the same. This proved to be too demanding of the young Sterling-Cole, who may end up benefiting from this loss in much the same way Falk did from his humbling defeat in Tempe two years ago.


Reach the reporter at smodrich@asu.edu or follow @StefanJModrich on Twitter.

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