PULLMAN – The steel framework rising five floors on Washington State’s football-operations building shadowing the west end zone seemed to invite a metaphor for the 2013 Cougars:
You know, another year to complete that construction that necessitates practice adjustments, another year to grow into Mike Leach’s system after last year’s 3-9 mess, another year for young players to gain a little seasoning. Even athletic director Bill Moos suggested as much in a May speech in Yakima, that 2014 would be the year he expected the program to start winning.
But things changed, thanks to Andrew Furney and Damante Horton and the upset last week at USC. And when WSU took the field at 1-1 here Saturday against Southern Utah, suddenly it seemed a whole new world of possibilities was out there.
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On a toasty late afternoon on the Palouse, there were fragile first-half moments for the Cougars, but sufficient big plays to nudge them toward what evolved as a breezy 48-10 victory.
“This is probably exactly what you think of when you think of a Mike Leach offense,” said WSU backup quarterback Austin Apodaca, who got his first career mop-up action. “Everyone seemed to be open, every route seemed to be there.”
We can’t know definitely the quality of this win, or lack thereof. But at least by 2012 reputation, the FCS Thunderbirds (2-1) had nice wins over Eastern Washington and one on the road at Montana.
Anyway, the Cougars were due for something a little cushier after the physical wringer they negotiated the first two weeks at Auburn and USC. They played in fits and starts in the first half until a decisive final five minutes freed them of the pesky T-birds and propelled them toward a rout.
“Thought there were real bright spots in all phases,” said Leach, the head coach. “It was disjointed at times, (but) we did a good job getting big plays. We squandered a play here and there, but we had pretty good composure.
“The defense really heated up in the second half.”
In truth, Connor Halliday performed better over the first two weeks against rugged defenses than his five interceptions and one touchdown pass would indicate. On this day, he left no room for interpretation, reversing those two numbers – and the interception wasn’t his fault – in completing 32 of 41 for 383 yards.
Asked what sort of feedback he got from Leach during the game, a bemused Halliday said, “Kind of keep doing what we’re doing.”
Not that there weren’t a few shaky steps for the Cougars, who were marshaled briskly for touchdowns by Halliday on their first two possessions. The T-birds were trailing only 14-10, when, with five minutes left in the first half, WSU incurred consecutive losses, the second one for 5 yards when Halliday authored one of those infamous Dave Krieg/soap dish passes – to himself – behind the line of scrimmage.
“Too bad,” Halliday said sheepishly. “I had Gabe (Marks) running wide open on the post. It probably would have been a touchdown.”
Halliday offered up a half-hearted alibi – saying center Elliott Bosch “sweats a lot” – before coming clean and saying good-naturedly, “No excuse, my fault.”
Halliday had a short memory. On the next play, he fired a 55-yard strike to a streaking Dom Williams down the left sideline, and on Southern Utah’s next series, quarterback Aaron Cantu overthrew 5-foot-7 Griff McNabb. Horton plucked it and had an easy 72-yard run to the end zone for his second pick-six in two weeks.
With a 28-10 halftime lead, it looked very easy thereafter for the Cougars, especially on defense, where they shut down the T-birds with 61 second-half yards.
“We came out kind of complacent (at the start), letting the offense do a lot of the work,” said safety Deone Bucannon. “We decided we should attack it as if it were Oregon or Stanford or one of the bigger Pac-12 schools. I feel that’s what we did.”
Overall, it was a red-letter day for the Cougars, who were simply a lot better than the visitor and went out and proved it. That bridge just might lead to somewhere.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org