Hercules Mata'afa established himself as one of the best defensive linemen in the country this season
For the third consecutive season, Washington State is going to a bowl game. The Cougars deployed their usual offensive fireworks. They also added one of the Pac-12's strongest defenses to become a true contender for a North division title until the final week of the regular season. With several young stars returning on both sides of the ball next season, the future looks bright in Pullman.
Here's a look back at the biggest stars and best moments for Washington State in 2017:
Offensive MVP: Luke Falk, QB
Only a few quarterbacks have undertaken a more incredible journey than Falk. He climbed the ladder from walk-on freshman to the Pac-12's career passing leader. Falk (above, right) owns a legion of school records and has been the engine driving Washington State's offense all season. He's the NCAA's active career leader in passing yards (14,481) touchdown passes (119) and total offense (14,081).
Defensive MVP: Hercules Mata'afa, DL
One major factor behind Washington State's strong defense this season is Mata'afa. The redshirt junior is an absolute beast on the defensive line and makes life miserable for both opposing quarterbacks and running backs. Mata'afa led the Pac-12 with 21.5 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks. He also totaled 43 tackles with two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Best Newcomer: Jahad Woods, LB
It didn't take long for Woods to leave a mark on the field. Woods emerged as a tackling machine in his debut season and holds plenty of potential to become an even bigger star in seasons ahead. The redshirt freshman linebacker is the second-leading tackler for the Cougars with 61 total stops. He is tied for second with 30 solo tackles and has a team-best 31 assisted tackles.
Biggest Surprise: Erik Powell, K
Powell blossomed into a consistent kicker as a senior after enduring some struggles as a junior. Powell is 19-of-23 on field goal attempts this season and his made field goal percentage (.826) ranks third in the Pac-12. He came through with big performances in wins over USC, Oregon and Utah — going a combined 11-of-12 on field goals in those games.
Best Play of the Season: Derek Moore's fumble recovery against USC
A signature moment of Washington State's upset win over the Trojans came when USC tried to mount a final scoring drive in the final two minutes. It came to an end when Jahad Woods sacked Sam Darnold on a second-down blitz. Woods popped the ball loose on the sack and Derek Moore jumped on the fumble to ice a 30-27 win over the eventual Pac-12 champions.
Best Performance: Luke Falk vs. Stanford
After getting benched in the second half of a loss to Arizona, Falk rebounded with one of his finest performances of the season. The senior threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-21 upset win over the eventual Pac-12 North champions. Falk also surpassed former Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion for the Pac 12's all-time passing yardage record before halftime.
Best Game: Upset of USC
There's no question which result ranks highest for Washington State this season. No other Pac-12 team handed the Trojans a loss. The Cougars did it with defense. Darnold threw for just 164 yards and an interception. He also had a costly late fumble that sealed the upset win for Washington State. Falk won the quarterback duel, throwing for 340 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Defining Moment: Comeback vs. Boise State
Washington State appeared headed for another lackluster non-conference start until making an incredible comeback to upset Boise State 47-44 in triple overtime. The Cougars trailed by 21 points in the fourth quarter, but Peyton Pelluer's 36-yard pick-six and a muffed punt return by the Broncos helped force overtime. It propelled Washington State to a 6-0 start and has positioned the Cougars to finish with 10 wins for the first time since 2003.
Biggest Disappointment: Loss at California
Washington State's perfect start crashed to a halt in a lifeless 37-3 loss to California. Luke Falk turned in one of his worst outings of the season, throwing five interceptions. It ended up being the only game where the Cougars failed to score a touchdown. The loss feels even more inexplicable now, given the fact that the Bears were one of three Pac-12 teams not to qualify for a bowl game this season.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Luke Falk
Replacing a quarterback like Falk isn't going to be easy. The air raid offense fit his skills perfectly and Falk led Washington State to three straight bowl games after a decade of mediocrity. Washington State has plenty of offensive talent to remain competitive, but it isn't a stretch to say the Cougars could take a temporary step back without Falk.
Player to Watch in 2018: Tyler Hilinski, QB
Transitioning to life without Luke Falk will be made easier with Hilinski on the roster. Hilinski proved he has the tools to be a capable successor in limited time this season. The sophomore has thrown for 904 yards and five touchdowns while completing 70.5 percent of his passes. Turnovers could be a problem area for Hilinski though. He totaled six interceptions over 129 pass attempts.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Can the Offensive Line Improve Pass Protection?
Luke Falk's ability to move the chains and put points on the board is all the more impressive when you consider how much pressure he faced from game to game. Washington State allowed 44 sacks for a loss of 317 yards during the regular season. Only three FBS teams allowed more sacks. This trend can't continue if the Cougars want to take the next step forward in the Pac-12 North.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of www.wsucougars.com)