Cougars offense finds success in second half of spring game

WSU redshirt freshman QB Austin Apodaca finished with 279 yards passing and two total touchdowns. (Dan Pelle)

A halftime summit was held at Albi Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Mike Leach overseeing a group of inconsistent and underachieving football players whom he said suffered – as the coach has grown fond of saying – from “performance anxiety.”

It was at midfield where Leach told his team, which had just completed the first half of Washington State’s annual Crimson and Gray game, that the second half would be regular length instead of using a 30-minute running clock as planned.

“We didn’t get our work done the first half,” Leach said, “so we were going to play a full second half. Which we did.”

The additional work provided an escape from the lethargy of the first half, and the Gray team emerged with a 22-21 victory before a crowd of 8,340 after third-string quarterback Jesse Brown threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Gabe Marks before completing a 2-point conversion pass to Theron West for the win.

There was mock exasperation afterward from members of the Crimson team, some of whom were upset that the game was called with more than five minutes still remaining on the clock.

Darryl Monroe, a sophomore linebacker and a Crimson player, said he refused to make good on a friendly wager between he and the Gray team because of the way the game ended.

“That wasn’t a win. They know we won that,” Monroe said afterward, donning sunglasses held by bright, neon-colored frames. “So all bets are canceled.”

The Crimson team certainly seemed a safe bet for most of this 150-play scrimmage. Connor Halliday led the squad on a 9-play, 43-yard scoring drive on his team’s first possession, ending it with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Isiah Myers.

Then came the lulls. Even with both defenses operating without any blitz packages for simplicity’s sake – too much mix-and-matching of personnel to run the entire playbook effectively, Leach said – the offensive line struggled to protect both Halliday and Apodaca, who quarterbacked the Gray team.

Eight sacks were allowed in the first half alone, and it didn’t help that Apodaca, as he admitted, took a while to shake free of some jitters.

“(If) something didn’t click right away, we’d kind of just go downhill from there instead of going onto the next play,” said Apodaca, who finished with 27 completions on 45 attempts for 279 yards and a touchdown. “I think that’s one of the biggest things we’ve got to overcome. If something bad happens, we can’t get in the fetal position and cry about it. We’ve got to play the next play.”

They did that better in the second half. The Crimson team took a 21-7 lead late in the third quarter when Halliday completed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Bobby Ratliff. That score came on the possession following Halliday’s quick pass to Kristoff Williams on a short route that turned into an 80-yard touchdown after Williams accelerated through the Gray team’s secondary.

And Crimson had a chance to really take control in the final minute of the third quarter, facing a 1st-and-10 from Gray’s 14-yard line. But Halliday threw his second interception of the game, this one to safety Taylor Taliulu near the goal line.

Apodaca led Gray on a quick 75-yard scoring drive immediately after, a 6-yard touchdown pass to Gabe Marks cutting Crimson’s lead to 21-14.

Brown took over for the final two possessions, taking snaps for a series with each team. His 21-yard toss to a wide-open Marks set up an easy conversion pass to West, and Gray claimed a controversial victory.

More important to Leach and crew were the improvements made after halftime.

“I thought our linemen played better the second half, certainly,” Leach said. “We had more explosives the second half, still some inconsistencies. I thought we certainly improved the second half.”

Halliday, who completed 38 of 58 passes for 406 yards, three scores and two interceptions, said the Cougars are still a work in progress.

“If we’re going to be the team that we want to be next year, we’ve got to fight through those lulls at the middle of the scrimmage,” Halliday said. “I think that’s kind of the biggest thing we’re fighting right now. We did get through that in the second half and moved the ball a little bit, so that was good.”

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