It doesn’t look like the Washington State blueprint has changed much at all, and you know what that means.
Another year of long, wild, crazy games. Another year of Connor Halliday flinging it all over the field, capable of making you pound your fist one play and pump your fist the next (though the ratio, one game into the 2014 season, is leaning heavily in favor of fist-pumping).
The Cougars still can’t run the ball much, and they can’t stop the run much, either. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. But Mike Leach’s Air Raid attack, in its third year on the Palouse, finally has the right person, at the right stage of his career, to run it.
The first half alone featured plays of 78, 52, 64 and 56 yards, evenly divided between WSU strikes and WSU defensive breakdowns.
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It’s that kind of team, and unless things change, it will be that kind of year, for better or worse. When the big plays and long bombs and breakaway runs had finally ceased, Washington State had lost the back-and-forth contest, 41-38, at CenturyLink Field.
It was a wildly entertaining game that presages a wildly entertaining season for the Cougars. But this is a program that needs more than flashy plays, and so the result – not decided until a Halliday pass to River Cracraft in heavy traffic fell off his fingertips in the final seconds – was devastating.
A fumbled punt had set up Rutgers’ go-ahead score, but the Cougars got the ball back with just over three minutes to play, and a chance to start the season with a dramatic victory.
It didn’t happen, to Halliday’s great frustration. After a sack and a penalty, they advanced just 14 yards to the 38 before turning it over on downs – an ending that Halliday said will linger much longer than his 532 passing yards and five touchdowns.
“Coach Leach and all our coaches talk about building a legacy,” Halliday said. “Well, legacies are born in a drive like that. We got the ball with two minutes and a chance to go win it. We floundered. We dropped the ball, didn’t block up front, I had a bad check in one of them.
“We work our butts off here in the offseason. I guarantee we practice harder than any other team in the country, what Leach puts us through. We think because we do that, we deserve to win games. That’s all well and good that you work hard, but when it’s winning time, you have to go out there and put a drive together.
“I didn’t think all 11 guys truly believed we were going to win that game. That’s frustrating, but we’ll get that figured out and hopefully we do build some kind of legacy here.”
The Cougar season started off about as grim and demoralizing as imaginable. They gave up a 78-yard touchdown to Rutgers on the first play. Halliday threw an ugly interception on their ensuing possession. A promising Washington State drive died inside the 10 on their second possession. It was the earliest recorded example of “Couging it” in school history.
But from that point, Halliday morphed into the quarterback who showed at times last year that he could rack up numbers with anyone in the country.
No defense is going to want to face Halliday and the Cougars (though opposing running backs may be salivating after watching Rutgers gain 229 yards on the ground, 173 of it by Paul James). While the early pick brought back memories of poor decision-making in Halliday’s past, he was stellar thereafter.
The Cougar season flashed before their eyes after a couple of fierce hits on sacks that left Halliday shaken up. But he showed the toughness and resilience of a person who once played three quarters with a five-inch laceration of his liver.
Throwing with the precision of a Halliday named Roy — and Connor might need to ice his arm after most games — the senior carved up the Rutgers defense with 40 completions in 56 attempts, hitting 10 different receivers.
Granted, that’s not quite like carving up the Legion of Boom. Rutgers allowed 4,056 passing yards last year, when the Scarlet Knights, headed into their first year as a member of the Big Ten, gave up 312 yards per game, fourth-most among FBS teams. But these Cougars appear capable of torching most defenses.
On a night when Jack Thompson, the fabled Throwin’ Samoan, was honored at halftime, it might be time to come up with a nickname for Halliday, who if healthy will re-write the WSU record books and threaten Pac-12 marks for attempts, receptions and yards.
How about the Flingin’ Redhead? Actually, by the standards of Leach and Halliday, it was a light night. Remember, Halladay broke Drew Brees’ NCAA record for passing attempts with 89 against Oregon last year, when he also tied an NCAA mark with 58 completions.
I’ll make a wild prediction: Halliday will surpass both marks before this year is through. He had six touchdown passes against Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl, set Pac-12 records with 449 completions and 714 attempts, and finished with 4,597 yards, second-most in Pac-12 history.
But Halliday’s legacy will depend on turning those eye-popping numbers into victories, a task the Cougars, despite all their trademark razzle-dazzle, were unable to accomplish on Thursday.