On a chilly fall afternoon in Pullman, WA, the Washington State Cougars (6-5, 4-4 Pac-12) earned a hard fought victory over a plucky Utah (4-7, 1-7 Pac-12) ball club.
The game was a fitting way to close out the college football careers of 18 student-athletes on Senior Day in Martin Stadium.
Yes, Cougar football is on the road to relevance.
FINAL: WSU 49- Utah 37
After logging their sixth win on the season, the Cougs are now eligible for a bowl invitation for the first time since 2003.
Junior quarterback Connor Halliday showed continued development and maturity by playing within Coach Mike Leach‘s CougAir offense. Leach was all business from the sideline watching his offense pile up 578-yards against a darn good Ute defense.
Halliday was nearly flawless turning in a gem.
“I think he’s steadily improved,” commented Coach Leach about the play of his quarterback. “The other thing that’s helpful is the other people around him (have) steadily improved. I think it all blends together. Our whole team has grown.”
A target of harsh criticism, Halliday has gone about leading the Cougs unfailingly in terms of commitment, effort, leadership and passion.
“Connor’s job really is to make all the players around him better. I think he does a tremendous job of that with his improvement. But then as they (all) improve it becomes more explosive.”
— WSU Coach Mike Leach
The WSU defense seized momentum in this Pac-12 game early on following the opening touchdown drive engineered by the savvy Spokane gunslinger-turned-disciplined-QB.
With the Cougs up by an initial touchdown, senior Damante Horton jumped an out route for a 22-yard pick-six midway through the first quarter. Grabbing his third interception for a touchdown this season, Horton now holds the WSU career mark with four pick-sixes.
Following the ensuing kickoff, Utah quarterback Adam Schulz rifled a ball behind his receiver which ricocheted into the Cougar secondary where senior Casey Locker calmly looked the ball into his hands for a 39-yard pick-six.
A couple of memorable plays for two WSU seniors playing for the last time in front of family and friends on their home turf in Martin Stadium.
Put all that together and you have a 21-0 start for Washington State with nearly six minutes left in the first quarter.
When your opponent is a team coached by Kyle Whittingham, expect 60-minutes of hard fought football.
Despite falling behind by three touchdowns, the Utah Utes came to play. They weren’t about to give up with so much football left to play.
True to their school pride and commitment, the Utes answered back with a pair of TD’s to make it a contest early in the second quarter. As quickly as this Senior Day looked to be a grand finale, momentum swung to the visiting team’s sideline.
It was, “Game On”…which didn’t seem to faze Washington State.
Without question, it was the offensive line of WSU that not only answered the retort by upstart Utah, the big guys up front strapped up their helmets to wage war in the trenches with a passion that continues to build week after week.
Utah arrived in Pullman leading the Pac-12 and the nation in getting to the quarterback by racking up 36-sacks in their first ten games. The Utes left Pullman without adding to their conference leading total. That’s right. Halliday was able to remain standing for 80 consecutive offensive plays.
Not only did Utah fail to sack the Coug QB, they rarely ventured into the same zip code.
“I thought our O-line did a really good job and that’s a heckuva challenge, Utah’s front,” praised Coach Leach after the game. “It was really a good effort…”
In the second half of play, both ball clubs failed to take over the game in the third quarter. Victory was there for the taking as two teams brought their best to the field.
When WSU got the ball back with 5:43 remaining to play and the scoreboard reading WSU 43 – Utah 37, Halliday and the CougAir offense earned the right to be considered for post season play. And they did it with style.
Halliday lofted a beautiful spiral to Dom Williams who cradled the ball while racing 71-yards for his second TD reception on the day.
It was, “Game Over”…which thrilled a exiguous, vocal crowd on hand to witness Cougar football continue a resurgence.
WSU leads the nation in the ratio of pass plays to running plays. This game showed how that stat can be very, very deceptive. Junior Marcus Mason carried the ball 10-times for 89-yards coupled with a team-leading 8 catches for 88-yards.
“Not too many people had 18 touches out there,” said Leach dripping with cynicism. “I think he probably touched it more than anybody. He’s become a real reliable, consistent guy. He also has a huge role on special teams. This week he was special teams captain.”
Coach Leach now has a record of 2-0 on Senior Day. What’s he think about that? “We’re probably going to make them all Senior Days from here on.”
Winning has a way of changing perspective.
After a night of celebration with family and friends, Cougar football will be back at it Sunday night. There is one game left on the schedule.
Apple Cup 2013
Not only is it the only game on the schedule next week, it is THE biggest game of the season for Washington State and Cougar Nation.
WASHINGTON STATE NOTES
- The 49-points put up on the scoreboard Saturday against Utah are the most the Cougs have scored in a Pac-12 game since 2003 when they lit up Oregon for 55.
- WSU had 10+ receivers record a catch for the ninth straight game and had 10+ receivers catch a pass in 10 games this season
- WSU scored 21 points in the 1st quarter for the first time since 2011, scoring 23 against Idaho State. Their 33 first-half points are the most points scored in any half of a conference game since scoring 38 in the first half of 55-16 win at No. 10 Oregon in 2003
- Marcus Mason’s 50-yard run in the third quarter was the longest by WSU since his 65-yard TD against Idaho State in 2011
- Connor Halliday tossed four TD passes to up his career passing touchdown total to 50, eclipsing Drew Bledsoe for fifth all time in WSU history. Halliday passed for 488 yards, giving him 3,865 for the season, second-most in WSU history and 103 yards away from Ryan Leaf’s record of 3,968 in 1997. He recorded his 13th career 300-yard game, most in WSU history and owns five career 400-yard games, tied with Alex Brink for most in school history. Connor has completed 380 passes this season, most in WSU single-season history, seven away from the Pac-12 record and his 597 pass attempts this season are the most in Pac-12 and WSU single-season history
- Senior Deone Bucannon made six tackles, has 102 for the season, first Cougar since Billy Newman (1999-2000) to post back-to-back 100-tackle seasons. He upped his career total to 372, fourth-most in WSU history.
- Senior Andrew Furney made three field goals to up his career total to 45, pushing him past John Traut for third-most in school history