EUGENE, Ore. — Into a boiling cauldron of lemon and green – oh yeah, and pink – Washington State’s Cougars ventured here Saturday night, mocked by their status as a 39-point underdog.
Heck of a place to rehabilitate a quarterback.
Whatever psychological massaging Connor Halliday might have needed after last week’s meltdown, now he might be due for a physical one. He threw 89 passes in losing 62-38 at Autzen Stadium, breaking the FBS mark, completing an FBS-record-tying 58 for a school-record 557 passing yards.
And still, WSU lost to Oregon’s hair-trigger Ducks, despite the fact Halliday was in there until the bitter end, chucking it for the Cougars’ final score with all of 11 seconds left.
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The Cougars have a bye this week, so he wasn’t on a pitch count.
“My shoulder’s pretty messed up, my ankle’s pretty messed up, my hip’s pretty messed up, so it’s kind of a perfect time for the bye week,” said Halliday.
“I knew going in, on about Monday of last week, that we were going to throw it a lot. I mean, nobody ever thinks 89 is going to be the number.”
“That’s crazy,” said defensive tackle Xavier Cooper.
Crazy also is Oregon’s speed, but you knew that. The Cougars played a feisty first half, trailing only 34-24 and taking the fight to the Ducks with a nice second quarter, one in which Cooper scooped up one of two Marcus Mariota fumbles and chugged 29 yards for a touchdown.
As for Halliday’s wacko numbers, offensive tackle Gunnar Eklund said, “We’ve gotta do anything we can to win.”
Indeed, they went down firing, after a week of outside grumbling about Halliday’s three-interceptions-in-five-plays meltdown last week against Oregon State.
There’s a growing segment of crimson loyalists who believe the Cougars can’t win with Halliday, and they’ll point to his four picks against the Ducks. I’d submit that, at least in 2013, they can’t win without him. As much promise as either Austin Apodaca or true freshman Tyler Bruggman might be showing in practice, this isn’t their time yet, not with WSU two victories from bowl eligibility, not in a league this competitive.
Halliday provides a case study into the development of a quarterback in the Mike Leach system. First off, no quarterback is tougher, and he’s been dealing with some sort of left-side issue since he was torpedoed by Stanford’s Trent Murphy on Sept. 28. There are message-board warriors who couldn’t type with that pain, let alone throw a football accurately.
Still, the cold numbers sometimes aren’t very complimentary. Against the five BCS programs the Cougars had faced entering the Oregon game — Auburn plus the Pac-12 — Halliday had thrown for five touchdowns with 10 interceptions. And three of those scores came against California’s depleted and bedraggled defense.
Others were alarmed at a skimpy 5.3-yards-per-attempt average against the four best teams WSU has played before the Ducks (throw out Cal).
I suspect some of it has to do with another number – WSU’s 57 sacks last year. The Cougars have been intent on getting rid of the ball more quickly, and that might be leading to shorter throws. It also helps keep Halliday upright.
Early last week, Leach was as introspective as he’ll ever get, discussing the Halliday season.
“The biggest thing, within the context of what we do, he doesn’t really have an example or a guy to follow,” said Leach. “He has to set the course himself. It’s us, describing it, as opposed to saying, ‘Look at the previous guy; we want you to do this.’
“He’s going to have to jump in, full-faith. There are going to be some missteps along the way.”
And there are. The trick for Leach is to squeeze the recklessness out of Halliday without squelching the competitive fire.
Against the Ducks, he threw corner-route touchdowns in the first half to Dom Williams and River Cracraft as WSU hung tough by intermission.
That was good Connor. Then came the bad, as he threw two third-quarter interceptions, including one of those wing-and-a-prayer shots down the middle that had no hope. Still later came a tipped pass, not his fault, that went for an Oregon TD.
All the numbers were bloated on this night, including Oregon’s 719 yards against a WSU defense that seemed increasingly gassed, on a team playing for the eighth consecutive week.
“They’re a great team,” sighed safety Deone Bucannon. “They speak for themselves.”
So do Halliday’s numbers, if at times a little haltingly.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org