During the past half-decade, it’s become a truism of Washington State football that Gabe Marks wants the football on every offensive play. Maybe every play, period.
And, yes, his hunger for playmaking opportunities is surely one reason he’s within 27 receptions of the Pac-12 career record.
But the Cougar defense exists. Cougar running backs exist. And Marks now says he appreciates them keenly, even as his reception numbers begin to slip.
“I’m a big fan of balance at this point in my career,” the senior receiver said this week. “I realize what it can do for you.”
It’s a big reason the Cougars (3-2, 2-0) have won three straight games, share the Pac-12 North loss-column lead with Washington and are five-point favorites for a Homecoming contest Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPN) at Martin Stadium against UCLA (3-3, 1-2). About 2,000 tickets remain available.
Marks is one of the few remaining Cougars who remember the 2012 season, when coach Mike Leach first piloted his Air Raid offense to Pullman and didn’t yet have the personnel to deploy it effectively. Marks made 49 catches as a true freshman but Wazzu ranked last in the country in rushing and finished 3-9.
“It’s not healthy to play football like that,” Marks said. “It’s really scary to play football like that, actually, especially when you’re playing receiver. I’ve been on some teams (he named no names) where they know the defense isn’t going to stop them, they know that we’re not going to run the ball, and so they just drop like 10 guys (into pass coverage). I’m like 160 pounds, running dig and post routes into defensive ends. It wasn’t cool.
“The addition of the run game and the defense is very much welcome to me.”
In fact, it’s changed the complexion of the WSU season the past two weeks. First the Cougars set a Leach personal record – counting not just his WSU tenure but also his decade at Texas Tech – with 280 rushing yards in a 51-33 win over Oregon. Then the Cougar defense denied Stanford an offensive touchdown until the final play of the game in a 42-16 road spree last week.
The emergence of the Cougars’ ground attack coincides with a new resolve to distribute receptions from Luke Falk more evenly among their plentiful receivers. Hence more erratic production from two senior wideouts who have played marquee roles for years: Marks and River Cracraft.
Yet Marks still leads the team with 34 catches for six touchdowns, and he’s on track to break Nelson Spruce’s league record of 294 career receptions.
“Sick,” Marks said of the possibility of breaking the mark. “That’s more than you can even imagine for yourself. That’s not even something you start out going for.”
Cracraft, meanwhile, ended a recent funk with one of the best games of his career Saturday night at Stanford, with seven receptions for 130 yards and a spectacular TD. It corroborated what the laconic slotback had been saying whenever Marks solicitously asked how things were going for him.
“He always told me he was good, and he was just waiting for the ball,” Marks said. “And I believe him. I mean, we all know what River can do. He’s one of the best receivers to play here. Sometimes, like in baseball, you just have to wait to get your swing back. I think it was the perfect time for him to get his swing back. I missed him. He was making some really Cracraft catches.”
Marks issued kudos for his cohort’s twisting end-zone grab despite pass interference in the fourth quarter, but his favorite was a leaping, back-arching center-field grab to set up the Cougars’ first score.
“We see him make the touchdown catch all the time – he just uses his technique,” Marks said, “but that other one, the contortion of his body seemed pretty painful.”
As for the revitalization of the WSU defense in recent weeks, Marks could hardly have sounded more appreciative.
Early in the year, as the Cougars lost back-to-back games to Eastern Washington and Boise State, Marks and others spoke of the team’s need to establish its own identity rather than complacently assume the progress they’d made last season would continue of its own accord.
It’s still too early to make pronouncements about that identity, but Marks thinks it might have something to do with the dynamic between the Cougars’ calm, efficiency-minded offense and their more exuberant teammates across the line of scrimmage.
“I think we feed off the defense more than they realize we do,” he said. “When they go out there and get a quick three-and-out, it makes the game so much easier. We just go out and do our thing – we just do our job. But the defense is definitely the energy of the team, the real spirit of the team.”