Defense dominates in Utah, Cougars await Apple Cup

WSU recorded seven sacks, seven turnovers in team’s ninth regular season victory


Kiffer Creveling | The Daily Utah Chronicle

Redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk prepares for a passing play in Saturday’s game against University of Utah.

JACKSON GARDNER, Evergreen reporter

Turnovers got the scoring started for WSU (9-2, 6-2), and it was a turnover that sealed the 33-25 victory against University of Utah (5-5, 2-5). Previously ranked No. 19, the Cougars now sit at No. 15. That is one spot ahead of rival and upcoming opponent, No. 16 University of Washington.

Although the Cougars’ upcoming Apple Cup matchup with the Huskies in two weeks is a highly anticipated event, winning in Utah was necessary to maintain control of their destiny.

Redshirt senior quarterback Luke Falk had yet another record-breaking performance. With a touchdown pass late in the second quarter, Falk became the Pac-12’s leader in career touchdown passes, breaking former University of Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley’s record of 116 touchdown passes.

Falk now holds every career passing record in conference.

This was the first game Falk, a Utah-native, played at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. He competed in front of more than 60 friends and family members in his homecoming game.

“I’ve wanted to play this game ever since I came to Washington State,” he said.

The “Speed D” of WSU ultimately made the difference in the game. The Cougars forced seven turnovers, generating 23 points and helping to secure a road win.

Utah sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley was running from defensive athletes throughout Saturday’s contest. The Cougars tallied seven sacks against the Utes, and three of them came from junior defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa in a career performance.

His three sacks, five tackles for a loss and eight solo tackles are all career-highs for the junior pass rusher. It is also his fourth career multi-sack game, and his 21.5 career sacks ties him for fifth all-time in program history.

“I had some one-on-one blocks that I had to utilize to the best of my ability,” Mata’afa said. “I think [WSU Defensive Coordinator Alex] Grinch got us in the right spot and he had the perfect game plan tonight.”

In the waning moments of the game, both teams traded possessions, giving the Utes a late opportunity to tie.

With three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Falk’s deep pass was intercepted by Utah senior defensive back Kenric Young. Two minutes later, WSU redshirt junior linebacker Chima Onyeukwu tipped Huntley’s pass and corralled it for an immediate interception to put the Cougar offense back on the field.

With 30 seconds on the clock and 90 yards needed for a touchdown, Huntley went on a 32-yard scramble, setting the Utes up for one final play.

The Cougars prevailed as time expired. WSU sophomore safety Jalen Thompson caught the desperation pass for the seventh and final turnover.

“We had contributions from all three sides — we had mistakes from all three sides, too,” Head Coach Mike Leach said. “I thought we overcame by playing together, and I thought we were pretty consistent with that.”

With just one game left in the regular season, the Cougars will stay in Pullman for a bye week. WSU will travel west of the Cascades to compete against University of Washington in the Apple Cup game on Nov. 25 in Seattle. The rivalry contest could decide the Pac-12 North title and a bid to the Pac-12 championship game.