PULLMAN – Welcome to the Pac-12 Connor Halliday.
As conference debuts go, there can’t have been many better than the one Washington State’s redshirt freshman quarterback put up Saturday night before a wet Dad’s Weekend crowd of 27,213, leading the Cougars to a 37-27 upset of Arizona State.
His first pass in relief of Marshall Lobbestael – on WSU’s third possession – went for an 85-yard touchdown pass to Marquess Wilson.
“We’ve been looking to run that play for about five weeks now and we finally got the look,” Halliday said. “How lucky can you be, your pretty much first meaningful college snap and you’ve got a guy running wide open down the field.”
His last pass was a perfect fit between the corner and safety that Wilson climbed in the ladder to grab and come down at the 1-yard line, setting up a clinching touchdown and giving Wilson a school-record 1,197 yards for the season.
In between Halliday hit outs, drags, fades, even one strange-looking push pass to Rickey Galvin en route to a WSU freshman record 494 yards passing and four touchdowns, completing 27 of 36 throws.
“You get on a roll and your confidence starts growing, you just start making plays,” Washington State coach Paul Wulff said, saying he had planned on playing Halliday on the third possession, then decide how much he would play depending on how he performed. He played every snap from that point on.
“Sometimes certain people give you more confidence the way they play,” Wulff continued. “And I think Connor gave that (to us) tonight with some early throws.”
“He did a phenomenal job tonight,” Wilson said of Halliday, the former Ferris High star. “He was reading pockets and making the right throws. He was poised in the pocket, not shook or anything, and worked throughout the game in making the right calls.”
Many of those calls went to Wilson, as the sophomore had 223 yards on just eight catches. But Isiah Barton added another seven catches for 155 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown, a 17-yard bullet with 8 minutes, 55 seconds left.
The Halliday-to-Barton connection wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the WSU defense, which held the Sun Devils to 60 yards on the ground. It would have been 61 it if weren’t for Brandon Rankin and a defensive stand on a fourth-and-1 from the WSU 9 with the Sun Devils (6-3, 4-2) leading 27-23.
“It’s a root hog technique,” said defensive tackle Anthony Laurenzi, who had three tackles. “We just get on all fours and kind of crawl through the gaps.”
Rankin crawled all the way into the backfield, upending Cameron Marshall for a loss of 1 and giving WSU the ball back with 13 minutes left.
After WSU took the lead, Arizona State marched right back to the Cougar 4-yard line, where George Bell dropped a sure scoring pass on third down from Brock Osweiler, who finished the night 28 of 44 for 351 yards and a score.
This time coach Dennis Erickson elected to try a field goal to tie but Alex Garoutte, who missed two in the final 6 minutes in a one-point loss to UCLA last week, pulled the kick wide left.
With 5:45 left, Halliday got the ball back. And the Cougars kept throwing.
“There was too much time,” Wulff said. “We’ve got to be very aggressive. And we were.”
Halliday teamed with Wilson on a 25-yard fade and Jared Karstetter on a deep out. The final pass to Wilson set up Carl Winston’s 1-yard run.
When Jamal Miles fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Kyle McCartney recovered, WSU had their first win since Oct. 1. The victory, in Washington State’s second home game in nearly two months, lifted the Cougars’ record to 4-6 overall, 2-5 in Pac-12 play.
Halliday’s passing yardage total trails only Alex Brink’s 531 yards in a losing cause at Oregon State in 2005 in WSU’s record books.
At first, this one looked as if it might end up like that OSU game.
With the Martin Stadium crowd fired up after former WSU linebacker Steve Gleason raised the Cougar flag just prior to kickoff, Andrew Furney booted the ball to the ASU 5-yard line.
That’s where Miles gathered it in. He headed up field and didn’t stop. Or even get touched. The 95-yard kickoff return – the fourth WSU has given up this season – snuffed out the enthusiasm quicker than the snow flurries that fell off and on.
But it returned after Halliday’s first throw.
And stayed. Even after Rickey Galvin’s fumble – his first of the year – led to the first of Garoutte’s two first-half field goals.
Furney had a 39-yarder sandwiched in-between Garoutte’s pair, so WSU trailed 13-9 when the Cougars got the ball back at their 26 with 4:15 left in the half.
Halliday, who usually throws a quick, tight spiral, used a forward push to get them their initial first down, shoveling the ball to Galvin for a 15-yard catch-and-run on third-and-6. From there, Halliday threw four more conventional completions – mixing in a scramble for 2 yards – to get WSU back into the end zone.
The final 23 yards were covered by his fade to Wilson, who beat Deveron Carr bad enough even Carr’s hold at about the 15-yard line didn’t break up the play.
With 1:15 until halftime, it looked as if WSU would lead at the break for the first time since the UCLA game.
But the opening kickoff had scared special teams coordinator Dave Ungerer enough that he had Furney squib kick the rest of the half. The final one was returned to the Arizona State 44 by Chris Coyle.
It only took Osweiler and the ASU offense five plays to get into the end zone for the first time. Cameron Marshall, who had just 8 yards rushing in the open half, scored his 14th touchdown of the year on a 2-yard run.