PULLMAN – Connor Halliday has completed passes to 10 teammates in each of Washington State’s first three games, but that’s not enough to satisfy the cocksure Cougars quarterback.
After slicing and dicing the Southern Utah Thunderbirds in a 48-10 laugher Saturday afternoon at Martin Stadium, Halliday groused about not getting credit for “my first career reception.”
Halliday was jokingly referring to the ugliest pass of his life, a ball that slipped out of his right hand as he was throwing it late in the first half. The play was ruled a fumble after Halliday grabbed the ball out of the air, but Halliday was petitioning for the play to be ruled a completed pass to . . . well, himself.
Besides, Halliday added, it was center Elliott Bosch’s fault for giving him a wet ball.
“Elliott sweats a lot,” Halliday deadpanned.
Halliday’s slip-up constituted just about the only mistake he made in WSU’s home opener – and that most definitely includes his third end-zone interception in as many games. The ball missed every crimson jersey by several zip codes, but Halliday explained later that Isiah Myers – who plays the X and Z wide receiver positions – forgot which position he was playing and ran the wrong route.
“Mental mistakes happen,” Halliday said calmly.
True, but they’re happening a lot less frequently this year than in any WSU season in recent memory. The 2-1 Cougars have played hard and usually quite well in all three games this season.
“Give credit to a Washington State team that appears to be improving year by year and game by game,” Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb said.
The Thunderbirds, a Football Championship Subdivision team, entered the game with a 2-0 record. However, they lacked the speed and athleticism to keep up with an improving young team from the Pac-12 Conference.
“This is how we’re supposed to play against everybody, not just an FCS team,” wide receiver Gabe Marks said. “We go and play in the Pac-12, all those good schools, we expect to do the same thing.
“We’re a confident group.”
Marks and all other WSU coaches and players had continued to express confidence in Halliday – at least publicly – despite the fact the redshirt junior turned the ball over three times in each of the first two games. Halliday came into the game with five interceptions and just one touchdown pass, but he had five touchdown passes – one off the school record – and the one pick Saturday.
“He played great,” Marks said. “What’d he have? Five touchdowns or something like that? A thousand yards throwing?
“He played well,” coach Mike Leach said. “I thought he commanded the unit well.”
Halliday completed 32 of 41 passes for 383 yards. Two of his touchdowns came on beautifully thrown bombs down the left sideline to Dominique Williams, one of a bevy of fleet WSU receivers who ate up a Southern Utah secondary that was not very fleet of foot.
“They really took away our slot receivers,” Halliday said, “so we had some good chances on the outside, and we took advantage of them.”
The 48 points were a high for WSU in Leach’s two years at the helm. For all the fawning over the (allegedly) explosive Air Raid offense that Leach brought with him from Texas Tech, Leach’s first WSU team averaged just 20.4 points per game (106th in the nation) and 359.5 total yards (94th).
The Cougars did rank ninth in passing last year (330.4), but that was largely because the team ranked dead last (120th) in rushing yards (29.1). Besides, WSU finished ninth in the nation in passing in Paul Wulff’s last year as coach, and all that got Wulff was a bus ticket out of town to make room for Leach.
The Cougars piled up 464 total yards Saturday – tying their season-opener mark at Auburn – but WSU followers should be even more excited about the mere 219 yards yielded to Southern Utah. Coming on the heels of a 193-yard defensive effort in last week’s win at No. 25 USC, the Cougars have given up less than 225 yards in back-to-back games for the first time since 1994.
“The defense is playing great,” Halliday said.
Star safety Deone Bucannon agreed with Halliday, but only to a certain extent.
“We came out in the first half kind of complacent … we came out in the second half and were flying around,” Bucannon said.
The Cougars have allowed no points in the second halves of the past two games. Saturday’s contest marked just the second time in the past five seasons that WSU has limited an opponent to 10 points or less.
Not content to simply stop the opposition, the WSU defense is scoring points, too. Senior cornerback Damante Horton, the reigning national Defensive Player of the Week, returned an interception for a touchdown for the second straight week. He zoomed 72 yards untouched in the final minute of the first half, one week after he scored from 70 yards out at USC.
Interestingly, all four of Horton’s other college interceptions came in a four-game stretch – one per game – in 2011.
“That’s how most picks are – they come in bunches,” Horton said.
The Cougars carry a bunch of momentum into Saturday’s homecoming game with 0-3 Idaho (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks). A 3-1 start might prove essential if WSU is to advance to a bowl game for the first time in 10 years, because after Idaho, the Cougars take on fifth-ranked Stanford in Seattle and second-ranked Oregon in Eugene.
“We expect to win every game,” Marks said.
Expectations are on the rise in Pullman, that is for certain.