Only once before in the last 42 Washington State football games has Luke Falk played the melancholy role he played Thursday night: strolling back and forth along the sideline, clapping his hands, trying in vain to keep morale from sagging.
The result was pretty much the same in both games.
Shelved by an apparent wrist injury, Falk concluded his sensational career as a college quarterback in the same way Wazzu fans did, watching helplessly as the Cougars languished in all phases of the game in a 42-17 loss to Michigan State in the Holiday Bowl.
Falk participated in warmup drills, clothed in full regalia but wearing a small cast on his left, nonthrowing wrist. It wasn’t clear who would start until the game began and Tyler Hilinski took the field, while Falk apparently retreated to the locker room, later returning in street clothes.
“I guess we had a sense of it (during warmups) that he wasn’t going to play,” WSU coach Mike Leach said, coming as close as he ever does to acknowledging an injury, “which is unfortunate because of what he’s done here. We have to look out for what’s in his best interests, and the best interest of our players.”
Hilinski completed 39 of 50 throws but the Cougars failed to ignite their vertical passing game and struggled to contain Michigan State dual-threat quarterback Brian Lewerke. They trailed 21-3 at halftime and gave up touchdowns on the Spartans’ first two possessions of the second half.
The sight of Falk on the sideline in a spectator’s role was reminiscent of the 2015 Apple Cup in Seattle, a week after he’d suffered a concussion. The Cougars were equally rudderless in that game, losing to Washington 45-10.
Aside from those two contests, Falk started every Cougar game since inheriting the starting job late in the 2014 season.
“Not being able to go out with the seniors that came in and really changed the culture of this program – I mean, it stunk,” Hilinski said. “Luke’s a great guy and he’s done a lot of great things for this program.”
The Cougars finish the season 9-4, losing their final two games a year after dropping their final three to wind up 8-5 in 2016. Michigan State finishes 10-3. A somewhat chilled crowd of 40,092 watched at SDCCU Stadium as the Holiday Bowl celebrated its 40th anniversary.
Hilinski passed for 252 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception, but he averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt and got little help from an injury-stunted run game, which produced 24 yards.
“I thought once he got in a rhythm he did well,” Leach said of Hilinski. “Pushed the ball downfield well. The biggest thing is Michigan State kept us off the field, so we didn’t get the ball as often as we would have liked.”
It didn’t help that the Cougars were missing consensus All-American defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa in the first half because of a targeting suspension left over from the Apple Cup.
The Spartans looked both stauncher and more electrified than the Cougs, especially from the second quarter onward. Lewerke passed for 213 yards and ran for 73, while LJ Scott bulled through the middle of the WSU defense with numbing repetition, winding up with 110 ground yards.
“Michigan State was a very physical team,” Hilinski said. “They dominated us in all three phases of the game. I thought they were a very well-coached team and very physical in all four quarters.”
The Cougars raised their offensive game in the second half but their defense continued to sputter. The Spartans went up 28-3 on Lewerke’s off-balance 10-yard touchdown toss to Cody White on the first possession of the third quarter.
Four plays later, Hilinski fumbled a handoff to James Williams, and linebacker Chris Frey recovered on the Cougar 27-yard line. That set up a 1-yard scoring run by backup quarterback Damion Terry, who’d taken the field when Lewerke took a stinging hit from Frankie Luvu on a 3-yard run.
The Cougars finally produced their first touchdown when Tay Martin made a deft end-zone catch for a 14-yard TD with about two minutes left in the third quarter.
Luvu intercepted a Terry pass on the next Michigan State possession, and Martin scored a lunging TD on a 15-yard catch-and-run to make it 35-17.
But an onside kick then failed and the Spartans capitalized with Scott’s 28-yard bolt up the middle to restore a 25-point lead.
The Cougars looked lifeless for much of the first half, mustering only 102 offensive yards and squeezing four of their five first downs into an almost six-minute drive resulting in a 45-yard field goal by Erik Powell. Their longest offensive play of the half was 13 yards.
The Wazzu defense initially looked sharp but badly blew coverage on two first-half plays, allowing a 49-yard touchdown pass to Felton Davis III and a key 16-yard catch-and-run by Scott to set up a TD inside the final minute.
The coup by Davis, who finished with 118 reception yards, was especially embarrassing to the Cougars, who “unraveled a little bit after that play,” Leach said.
Lewerke manufactured the game’s first touchdown on a dazzling 15-yard scoring bullet to White, who was surrounded by three Cougars in the end zone.
That capped a imponderable 16-play drive lasting 9:24. At times like that, Falk wasn’t the only Cougar quarterback who felt helpless.