In a highly anticipated showdown between two signal callers with NFL potential, it was Washington State senior Luke Falk -- and not consensus top-rated prospect Sam Darnold from USC -- who enjoyed the more impressive Friday night, guiding the Cougars to a hard-fought 30-27 victory and handing the previously No. 5-ranked Trojans their first loss of 2017.
Falk completed 34 of 51 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns to lead the now 5-0 Cougars to the win, setting a Pac-12 record for career completions (passing Oregon State's Sean Mannion) along the way.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Falk -- NFLDraftScout.com's No. 2 senior quarterback -- showed off his trademark accuracy early and often, hitting wideout Renard Bell down the right seam for a 61-yard gain in the first quarter and finishing the drive with a quick screen to his left to another receiver, Tavares Martin, Jr., to give the Cougars its first lead at 10-7. Falk threw a second touchdown to stake Washington State to a 27-20 lead in the final frame, flipping a shovel pass to running back Jamal Morrow, who sprinted 23 yards to paydirt for his second score of the game.
Darnold, on the other hand, was harassed all night by an aggressive Washington State defense, fumbling away USC's chance at yet another dramatic comeback by failing to protect the ball when hit by blitzing linebacker Jahad Wood with just 1:26 remaining in the game. The Cougars' pass rush was led by another future NFL draft pick in Hercules Mata'afa, a 6-foot-2, 245-pound junior projected as an outside linebacker by NFLDraftScout.com.
Darnold completed just 15 of 29 passes for 164 yards in the loss and failed to throw a touchdown for the second time this season, something which occurred only three times all of last year and never in a contest in which he attempted more than eight passes. Darnold also threw his eighth interception of the young season. The redshirt sophomore tossed just nine all of last season.
While his passing statistics in this contest (and, frankly, this season overall) are far from impressive, Darnold's stock is not likely to suffer much with NFL scouts, who will note how much his injury-ridden and inexperienced offensive line struggled to protect him Friday night. Prior to his inexplicable fumble, Darnold showed off the poise and toughness that have scouts so intrigued, running for two touchdowns and seemingly willing the Trojans to remain competitive in a game in which Washington State clearly outplayed them.
While the big story nationally will likely be Darnold's failure to deliver in the clutch for the first time in his college career, Falk's performance deserves top billing. He took several big shots in this contest, himself, absorbing four sacks in the first half alone, as well as several drops from his receivers.
Falk could have left early for the NFL a season ago but by returning not only has the undefeated Cougars -- which entered the game ranked 16th in the country -- dreaming playoffs but also putting himself in position to play in a prominent senior all-star game, where he could have the opportunity to ease concerns about his transition from Mike Leach's Air-Raid offense to a more pro-style attack.
Falk has the frame, toughness and accuracy to be a successful NFL quarterback. The biggest knocks on him are a lack of elite arm strength -- something masked by WSU's quick-hitting spread attack -- and that he lacks the mobility to buy extra time in the pocket.
For all of the excitement scouts have for mobile quarterbacks, however, poise and accuracy from the pocket remain the two most important traits for the position. As Falk demonstrated yet again Friday night in the biggest win of Leach's career at WSU, he certainly possesses these two attributes.