PULLMAN – Jim Sharkey picked up his cell phone. The Ferris High football coach had just remembered a play Connor Halliday made in a state playoff game his junior year, and he wanted to pass it along.
It was the type of play Halliday, the redshirt freshman who heads into Washington State’s home game Saturday with Utah as the starter, that made Sharkey shake his head, professing he’s never coached a high school quarterback with Halliday’s arm.
Sharkey opened the story by acknowledging he called the wrong play. The ball was on the left hash, not the middle of the field as he expected. The Saxons had three receivers into the boundary, one on the right side. The play Sharkey called demanded that the quarterback throw a 15-yard out to Aaron Roberts, the wideout on that side.
Compounding the problem was the nearest defensive back was Skyline’s Gino Simone, now a receiver at WSU. An interception here and it was six points the other way.
“He just threw a bullet,” Sharkey said, admitting he was a bit terrified after realizing his mistake. “We get a big gain out of a play that probably should have been a pick.”
It was throws like that one – and Sharkey has a handful more to draw upon – that made Washington State’s decision easy. The Cougars, like most colleges, offer a scholarship to one quarterback per class. In June after his junior year, they offered theirs to the tall, skinny red-headed kid from Spokane.
And last Saturday it paid dividends.
Halliday, who came into the game having thrown 19 passes in mop-up duty early in the season, relieved Marshall Lobbestael for the third series against Arizona State.
His first pass went for 85 yards and a score. His third, 27 yards. His fourth, 31 yards. The Cougars rallied in the fourth quarter and won 37-27.
Halliday finished with 494 passing yards, the most for a Washington State and Pac-12 freshman. He threw four touchdown passes. And Saturday he’ll make his first start, facing Utah in Martin Stadium.
Sharkey, and 50 Saxons football players, will be there.
Mike Kramer won’t, but the Idaho State coach will be there in spirit. Throughout last season, when Kramer worked as office assistant at WSU and Halliday ran the Cougars’ scout team, Kramer would tell anyone who would listen the freshman had an NFL future.
“Last fall every single day, he was throwing to guys who were not playing for us, an assortment of walk-ons and converted running backs, but let me tell you, he was throwing it in there,” Kramer said Wednesday. “That’s why I think he’s got such a great future. There will be times when it’s rough, you’ll scratch your head, but he’s proven already he’s a winner.”
But, as Halliday will tell you, running the scout team and running a Pac-12 offense are two different things.
“Running coach (offensive coordinator Todd) Sturdy’s offense is a lot different than taking the snap and just throwing it wherever you want,” Halliday said last week. “This is not a not an easy offense to pick up, by any means.”
But the light started going on for the 6-foot-4, 179-pounder about a month ago. And his practice performance started to improve.
“His performance at practice gave us more confidence to put him in the game,” coach Paul Wulff said.
The Cougars had a need. When starter Jeff Tuel went down in the opener, fifth-year senior Lobbestael stepped in and led WSU to a 3-1 start. But as the Pac-12 season wore on – Tuel returned to the lineup for a game and a half before reinjuring his left clavicle – and WSU’s losses mounted, it came time to see what Halliday could offer.
“We knew going into (the ASU game) we were going to give him the third series,” Wulff said. “First play, scored a touchdown so we just kept going.”
What Halliday brings, other than a strong arm, quick release and what Sharkey calls “a natural ability to keep his eyes downfield” all the time, is a confidence built from success.
“If you’re going to be playing college football at the Pac-12 level, you have to have a confidence in yourself to believe if you get thrown out there you’re going to make things happen,” Halliday said. “If you don’t have that confidence, I don’t think you’d be successful at this level.”
Despite his slight build – Halliday acknowledges the need to get bigger and says it’s one of his main goals – he can take a hit and deliver the ball – as was the case in the 85-yard touchdown toss.
“If you watch the throw on film, he got blasted,” said senior receiver Jared Karstetter, who played basketball with Halliday at Ferris after the quarterback transferred from Lewis and Clark late in the 2007 football season.
“He put the ball right on the money. Marquess (Wilson) had to run it down and that’s what separated him from the defense. It was great play by Connor regardless that Marquess was wide open.”
That high school transfer, coming as it did at the start of the football playoffs, engendered debate and criticism throughout Spokane, even though it was allowed under the rules at the time. But Halliday heard the noise.
“Growing up, by the way my dad raised me, I already had pretty thick skin,” he said. “After that incident, my skin just got thicker.”
Halliday said it was tough leaving friends, but it helped him get to where he wanted to be.
“And, in the end, it made me tougher,” he said.
It’s a characteristic needed in a Cougars quarterback, and its outward manifestation is something Karstetter notices.
“Connor has the ability to stay loose and relaxed,” he said. “He never takes anything too seriously. You can see that on game day. He never gets too high or too low.”
Against Utah, Halliday and the Cougars will be facing one of the toughest defenses in the conference, ranking third overall and second in pass efficiency. The Utes boast a front four second to none and lead the conference with 14 interceptions.
Last week, Halliday was an unknown quantity. This week, there is scrutiny. It can give a young quarterback fits, Wulff acknowledged.
“We hope Connor can handle all the demands that come with being the starter, the coach said. “But he’s got to get his first start sometime.”