Skinny redshirt freshman flashed brilliance in high school and wowed everyone last week for the Cougars. Can he keep it up against Utah on Saturday?
PULLMAN — Jim Sharkey will never forget the pass.
The football coach at Ferris High School in Spokane had called the wrong play in a state-playoff game against Skyline of Sammamish. Thanks to Connor Halliday, it didn’t matter.
The ball was on the left hash mark, not the middle of the field as expected. Three receivers were lined up left, and only one on the right. The pass was supposed be a risky 15-yard out to the right. An interception, and it was six points the other way.
“He just threw a bullet,” Sharkey said, who added he has never coached a high-school quarterback with a better arm. “We get a big gain out of a play that probably should have been a pick.”
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Throws like that one made Washington State’s decision easy. In June after Halliday’s junior year, the Cougars offered their lone quarterback scholarship to the tall, skinny redheaded kid from Spokane.
And last Saturday it paid dividends.
Halliday, a redshirt freshman who entered the game having thrown 19 passes in mop-up duty early in the season, relieved Marshall Lobbestael for the third series against Arizona State.
His first pass went for 85 yards and a score. His third, 27 yards. His fourth, 31 yards. The Cougars rallied in the fourth quarter and won 37-27.
Halliday finished with 494 passing yards, the most ever for a Washington State and Pac-12 freshman. He threw four touchdown passes. And Saturday he’ll make his first start, facing Utah at Martin Stadium.
Sharkey, and 50 Saxon football players, will be there.
Mike Kramer won’t, but the Idaho State coach will be there in spirit. Throughout last season, when Kramer worked as an office assistant at WSU and Halliday ran the Cougars’ scout team, Kramer would tell anyone who would listen the freshman had an NFL future.
But, as Halliday will tell you, running the scout team and running a Pac-12 offense are two different things.
“Running coach (offensive coordinator Todd) Sturdy’s offense is a lot different than taking the snap and just throwing it wherever you want,” Halliday said last week. “This is not a not an easy offense to pick up, by any means.”
But the light started going on for the 6-foot-4, 179-pounder about a month ago. And his practice performance started to improve.
“His performance at practice gave us more confidence to put him in the game,” coach Paul Wulff said.
The Cougars had a need. When starter Jeff Tuel went down in the opener, fifth-year senior Marshall Lobbestael stepped in and led WSU to a 3-1 start. But as the Pac-12 season wore on — Tuel returned to the lineup for a game and a half before reinjuring his collarbone — and WSU’s losses mounted, it came time to see what Halliday could offer.
“We knew going into (the Arizona State game) we were going to give him the third series,” Wulff said. “First play, scored a touchdown, so we just kept going.”
What Halliday brings, other than a strong arm, quick release and what Sharkey calls “a natural ability to keep his eyes downfield” all the time, is a confidence built from success.
“If you’re going to be playing college football at the Pac-12 level, you have to have a confidence in yourself to believe if you get thrown out there you’re going to make things happen,” Halliday said. “If you don’t have that confidence, I don’t think you’d be successful at this level.”
And despite his slight build — Halliday acknowledges the need to get bigger and says it’s one of his main goals — he can take a hit and deliver the ball, as was the case on the 85-yard touchdown pass.
“If you watch the throw on film, he got blasted,” said senior receiver Jared Karstetter, who played basketball with Halliday at Ferris after the quarterback had transferred from Lewis and Clark late in the 2007 football season.
“He put the ball right on the money. Marquess (Wilson) had to run it down, and that’s what separated him from the defense. It was a great play by Connor regardless that Marquess was wide open.”
Halliday’s high-school transfer, which happened at the start of the football playoffs, engendered debate and criticism throughout Spokane, even though it was allowed under the rules at the time. But Halliday heard the noise.
“Growing up, by the way my dad raised me, I already had pretty thick skin,” he said. “After that incident, my skin just got thicker.”
It’s a characteristic needed in a Cougar quarterback. And its outward manifestation is something Karstetter notices.
“Connor has the ability to stay loose and relaxed,” he said. “He never takes anything too seriously. You can see that on game day. He never gets too high or too low.”
Against Utah, Halliday and the Cougars will be facing one of the toughest defenses in the conference, ranking third overall and second in pass efficiency. The Utes’ defense boasts an imposing front four and leads the Pac-12 with 14 interceptions.
Last week Halliday was an unknown quantity. This week there is scrutiny and higher expectations.
It’s a challenge, but his former high-school coach knows that Halliday doesn’t back down from those — whether it’s a risky pass or a first college start.