Quarterback Luke Falk is glad for the rest after No. 15 Washington State opened the season with 11 consecutive games.

Next week, the Cougars get a chance to win the Pac-12 North and earn a spot in the league title game when they face No. 16 Washington in the Apple Cup in Seattle. But Falk’s focus this bye week is on healing all the bumps and bruises, including perhaps to the ego.

Falk, a senior who owns just about every significant Pac-12 career passing record, has twice been benched for lack of production this year. “You don’t want to see someone doing your job,” Falk said this week. “Ultimately as the quarterback you’ve got to put the ball in the end zone.”

The first benching was in the second game, when Tyler Hilinski came in to lead the Cougars (9-2, 6-2, CFP No. 14) to a thrilling triple-overtime victory. The second time was in the Oct. 28 game at Arizona, when Hilinski came in and threw four interceptions in a Cougar loss.

Falk, a former walk-on who became the starter late his freshman year, acknowledged that it hurt to be yanked from those two games.

Still, he said he only worries about things he can control, and that does not include who coach Mike Leach decides should play quarterback.

“I’m just grateful to be able to play the last two weeks,” said Falk, who led the Cougars to tough victories over No. 18 Stanford and at Utah to set up the key Nov. 25 showdown with Washington (8-2, 5-2).

For his part, Leach said Falk at times can be too analytical and get into ruts. But there is no question who will start the Apple Cup.

“There’s no quarterback in the country that doesn’t have ups and downs,” Leach said. “I can’t think of any I don’t have Luke ahead of.”

“He’s the all-time leading passer and touchdown leader in the greatest passing conference in the history of college football,” Leach added. “That’s a tremendous accomplishment.”

The Apple Cup will be Falk’s first start in Husky Stadium, where only five Washington State quarterbacks have ever posted a win. “That’s one of our goals,” Falk said. “We need to get this one to get to the one we want.”

The Cougars have navigated a rough road to get to this stage.

Washington State won its first six games, averaging 39 points per game through what was the easiest part of the schedule.

But they went 3-2 over the next five games, including a 37-3 loss at California.

The defense has played a big role in keeping them in it.

“They are playing lights out right now,” Falk said. “It gives us confidence to go out there and do our job.”

The defense forced seven turnovers at Utah last weekend and the Cougars were still barely able to squeak out a 33-25 victory that was not decided until the closing minute.

Defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa has emerged as a star. Mata’afa won the Pac-12 defensive player of the week honor by posting a career-high five tackles for loss, three sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery against Utah. The junior leads the Pac-12 with 21.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks this season.


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