PULLMAN — If you thought the Stanford game was rough for Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, go back and watch last year’s game against Oregon State.
The teams combined to turn over the ball eight times, including three interceptions from Halliday, who was benched in the second quarter of the 19-6 loss.
As the Cougars prepare to host the Beavers in a Pac-12 football game Saturday night, much will depend on the play of Halliday, who is a year older, wiser, and is coming off a 521-yard passing performance against Cal.
Ball security will be paramount against an Oregon State team that is averaging a hair over 41 points per game.
Halliday’s teammates don’t doubt him in the slightest.
“Connor is the toughest quarterback I’ve ever dealt with in my life,” praised safety Deone Bucannon. “He’s gone through and overcome so much, and played at a high level every time, it’s kind of crazy. It’s kind of expected. When you say Connor, that’s what he is. He’s a tough, playmaking, hard-nosed guy and he’s going to get the job done.”
Just moments later Bucannon added: “He’s a great quarterback. He’s the best quarterback that I’ve had on a team.”
There’s little doubt Halliday has improved immensely since that forgetful day in Corvallis.
The redshirt junior signal-caller’s struggles to take care of the football persisted in the first two games of this season, which saw him throw five interceptions and just a single touchdown. But head coach Mike Leach kept faith in his quarterback, who has rewarded his coach’s confidence with 12 touchdowns against just five interceptions over WSU’s last four games.
While Leach has been guarded in his praise of the quarterback, he did acknowledge that Halliday’s gaudy numbers on Saturday (521 passing yards, three touchdowns) were the result of his ideal stewardship of the Air Raid offense.
“I thought Connor did a good job of getting it to the running backs,” Leach allowed. “I like the fact that we didn’t run that much but they had quite a few touches. I did think it went pretty good as far as there was some balance to how many touches by position.”
With four wins, the Cougars have already surpassed their win total from last season, and with six games left in the season need only one more victory for their best record since 2007.
It’s apparent that much of WSU’s improvement is thanks to better play from their quarterback. Halliday will have a chance to show just how much better on Saturday against the Beavers team that thoroughly frustrated him a year ago.
Matt Goetz started his first game of the 2013 season at right guard on Saturday. The move pushed John Fullington over to right tackle, and relegated Rico Forbes to the second string. While Leach said there is a possibility that Goetz won’t retain the spot because of inconsistent performance in practice, he likes how the unit performed, saying, “It was pretty good. I think that combination played together well.”
It’s hard to find flaws with the job the line did shielding Halliday, who was only sacked once in 67 drop-backs. While that can partially be attributed to the ineptitude of Cal’s pass rushers — who are last in the conference in total sacks — Goetz and the offensive line played undeniably well.
“It’s a big improvement,” center Elliott Bosch said. “We had a lot of sacks last year and part of that’s Connor getting the ball out fast and being able to get rid of the ball when he has to. Part of it is we’ve improved as an offensive line and everyone is playing as a unit.”
A theme of WSU’s season has been that the team is intent on treating every game equally, and focusing only on the game ahead.
The Cougars continued that refrain during Monday’s press conference, insisting that with bowl-game qualification so close, the team is not reflecting on the favorable math.
“It’s the most wins I’ve had here, ever, with six games left, so that’s really promising,” kicker Andrew Furney said. “But at the same time we’ve got to look one game at a time, Oregon State this week.
“We can’t look at a bowl or whatever, we’ve just got to take it one game at a time and our goals will be achieved, hopefully.”
The theory then being that if the players keep their eyes ahead and not on the prize, eventually the “one game” that requires their focus will be of the postseason variety.