Luke Falk’s imaginary childhood touchdowns were so fiery, it’s a wonder he never developed an aversion to the end zone.
Falk would pretend he was the quarterback of the Denver Broncos; his opponent was always the Oakland Raiders.
The score was always close in the final minute, but the Broncos had Falk, who time and again called his own number and dived across the goal line.
The goal line was a pile of pillows stacked against the active fireplace Falk had designated the end zone. His mother, Analee Falk, is likely both relieved and perturbed a charred pillow was the only casualty of these make-believe rivalry bouts.
“I always envisioned myself winning the game and getting it done,” Falk said.
Falk no longer has to imagine what it feels like to have the ball in his hands in a do-or-die situation with seconds on the clock. Those seem to come up weekly for him and the Cougars offense.
In four of WSU’s first five games, the Cougars (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) faced a final drive needing to score to avoid a loss. Twice Falk has led them to victory.
The first chance began well. WSU was down by a touchdown against Portland State and had 2:18 seconds to drive 75 yards. Falk picked up two first downs, but on the second he was injured while diving forward and could not finish the game.
On Saturday, Falk stared down a raucous Autzen Stadium crowd, forcing overtime when he threw a touchdown pass to Dom Williams with 1 second to go. Falk was 7 for 9 on the final drive, marching the Cougars 70 yards in just under 2 minutes.
The last time the Cougars even had a comparable drive was in 2013 at Arizona when Connor Halliday threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Isiah Myers. The stakes were lower in that game because the score was already tied.
WSU coach Mike Leach credits Falk’s unflappable nature for his success in high-pressure situations.
“I think he’s been a very composed figure out there on those and I think that has rubbed off on the rest of the team,” Leach said. “It starts with the expectation that you can march down and score, and he does a good job keeping everybody clear-headed in those games.”
His teammates have also noticed his willingness to sacrifice his body in games and in practice.
“He’s got that aura to him and he’s really gritty on the field,” said wide receiver Gabe Marks. “He’s not like a lot of the quarterbacks today, real pretty and stuff like that. He’s like one of us. He likes to get out there and get dirty with us.”
Before Falk can clear his teammates heads, he takes care of his own. Falk denies having any rituals, but the process he goes through before every big drive sure seems ritualistic.
First, Falk throws some passes, typically to backup quarterback Peyton Bender. While he does that, he repeats positive affirmations to himself. You can spot him doing this if the TV cameras find him.
Once his body is occupied with throwing and the mantras have cleared his mind, he visualizes what he will see on the field. What looks the defense will be in, what plays the offense will run, his reads.
He then gathers his teammates, maybe tells a couple jokes to break the tension and leads the offense on a game-deciding drive.
Just like in the living room, but with no pillows and absolutely no flames.
SATURDAY: Oregon State (2-3, 0-2 Pac-12) at Washington State (3-2, 1-1), 1 p.m., Pac-12 Networks, 710-AM