Mike Leach hasn’t hesitated to shuffle the deck this season when starting quarterback Luke Falk isn’t moving the Cougars offense effectively or efficiently. Twice now, the Washington State coach has gone to the bullpen for relief, replacing Falk with backup Tyler Hilinski – most recently in the second quarter of Saturday’s 58-37 loss to Arizona, when it was all the Cougars could do to cross midfield.
But Leach says he won’t be holding QB1 auditions this week at practice as the Cougars gear up to play Stanford on Saturday in Pullman (12:30 p.m., Fox).
“We'll start Luke,” the coach said.
So once again, Falk, the fourth-year starter, will have a chance to take down the Pac-12 Conference record for career passing yards held by Sean Mannion and now needs only 132 to leapfrog the former the Oregon State quarterback.
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Falk was on track to get there Saturday in Tucson, but with a few minutes remaining in the second quarter, Leach yanked his starter in favor of Hilinski. For all that he’s done to make the Air Raid offense one of the most potent in the country – and make WSU one of the most consistent winners in the Pac-12 the last three seasons – Falk has a tendency to get inside his own head, and at times this season, the Cougars have become stagnant because of it.
“I think he just needs to not put any pressure on himself,” Leach said. “Because he’s worked hard, he’s trained, he needs to just do the best he can and be pleased with that. Because that’s all anybody’s got is their best and nobody trains harder than him anyway, so he needs to just understand that his best is plenty.”
Leach didn’t necessarily intend to keep Falk on the sideline the whole game – “I wanted Luke to see the field,” he said afterward – but Hilinski drove the Cougars into the end zone before halftime, then threw an 8-yard touchdown to Tay Martin early in the third quarter and scrambled into the end zone after that to give the Cougars their first lead, 27-23.
“He kind of gave us a spark,” Leach said.
LOVE: GAME-TIME CALL
Stanford coach David Shaw declared star running back Bryce Love a “game-time decision.” Wintry conditions are in the forecast and the Cardinal could use all the weapons at their disposal in a game against the Pac-12’s second-ranked defense, one week after struggling to score 15 points against the league’s worst.
Because of an ankle injury, Love was unavailable when Stanford traveled to Corvallis, Oregon, last Thursday to play the Beavers. With their backfield dynamo missing, the Cardinal looked hapless on offense and nearly allowed the Beavers to slip out with their first Pac-12 win.
Love didn’t go through team drills in Palo Alto on Tuesday, but Shaw is hopeful his health improves enough to where he can give the Cardinal a boost against the Cougars, who rank 17th nationally in total defense and were top-10 before the loss at Arizona last weekend.
“He feels better this week than he did last week,” Shaw said. “Not necessarily ready to practice I don’t believe today. So he’s still with the training staff and hopefully he can go on Saturday.”
The junior tailback from Wake Forest, N.C., didn’t take a single handoff in Thursday’s game against the Beavers and still came out of the weekend as the country’s leading in rushing yards. Through seven games, he’s amassed 1,387 yards – the fastest player to reach 1,000 in school history – and is still 19 yards ahead of San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny despite playing in two fewer games and taking 74 fewer carries.
Love hasn’t rushed for fewer than 147 rushing yards in a single game this season and without him, the Cardinal only managed 87 – on just three yards per carry – in the game at Oregon State. The Cardinal were in danger of suffering a major upset until Keller Chryst hit JJ Arcega-Whiteside on a 3-yard touchdown fade with 20 seconds to play at Reser Stadium.
Love may have actually catapulted his Heisman stock by sitting out. It was the lowest scoring output for Stanford all season and the Cardinal finished with just 222 yards of total offense.
“He’s a good running back in a conference full of good running backs,” Leach said Monday.