LAS VEGAS — Mike Leach is talking about different aspects of his Washington State football team, but he’s saying the same thing. Over and over, he’s saying the same thing.
First, there’s the defensive backfield.
“We’ve got to be tougher,” Leach said. “Some of those kids in the secondary talk about being tough. They need to start proving it.”
Then, the offensive line.
“At key times late in the game, we’re holding way too much and it’s a major toughness issue,” Leach said. “It’s not anything but one thing: toughness. And right now we’re not tough enough to not hold late in the game.”
Still, in between the busted coverages, penalties (12 for 128 yards) and failed attempts to knock UNLV out for good, the Cougars (2-1) managed their best offensive effort of the season – by far – in a 35-27 win at Sam Boyd Stadium, making sophomore Connor Halliday a winner in his second career start.
Halliday completed 26 of 45 passes for 378 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions, making his first start of the season in place of the presumably injured senior Jeff Tuel.
“I feel like I made a decent case,” Halliday said. “I need to play better in the fourth quarter.”
They all do. The second of Halliday’s interceptions – a third-down corner route to Bobby Ratliff that was picked by Tajh Hasson – came with WSU leading, 35-20, with 8:42 remaining in the game. It was reminiscent of last week against Eastern Washington, when the Cougars led by 10 points late in the game before fumbling in the red zone with a chance to take a three-score lead.
Leach said there were chances to take the Rebels out of it, “like about probably eight different times in the course of the game.”
Such as when WSU led 14-0 in the first quarter, looking for all the world as if it might produce a performance similar to last year’s 59-7 romp.
But UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry exploited a couple of coverage gaffes, the first a 37-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Sullivan behind Casey Locker and Anthony Carpenter to cut the lead to 14-7.
Halliday’s big-play ability was evident throughout. A 47-yard pass to receiver Gabe Marks set up WSU’s first touchdown. Halliday later connected with Marks again for a 52-yard touchdown pass, and tossed an 81-yarder to Marquess Wilson on 3rd-and-17 to give the Cougars a 28-10 lead with 5:27 left in the first half.
Again, it appeared the Cougars might roll from there.
Nope. Sullivan caught a 75-yard touchdown pass on the next play from scrimmage, beating WSU cornerback Damante Horton in man coverage down the right sideline before stiff-arming him out of the way and accelerating into the end zone.
After a last-second field goal before halftime, the Rebels (0-3) had trimmed WSU’s lead to 28-20, with each team piling up 275 yards of total offense in the first half.
UNLV scored its first points of the second half with 1:44 to play, Sherry capping a quick drive aided by a late-hit penalty against Deone Bucannon by finding Jake Phillips for a 4-yard touchdown.
The onside kick failed. But WSU failed to end the game with possession of the ball, picking up one first down before stopping the clock with an incomplete pass and failing to pick up a fourth-and-three that would have iced it.
“I ran it too much,” Leach said. “I should have got first downs. Line up and get first downs.”
A last-ditch heave by Sherry – who finished with a career-high 351 passing yards – fell well short of the end zone, and WSU left Sin City with a too-close-for-comfort victory.
“I feel like we took a big step,” Wilson said of the offense, which produced 461 total yards. “Knowing that last week we barely got 24 points and this week we came up with more points, it’s great knowing you can take a step every week and get better at what you’re doing.”
“We’re a team that has talent,” Halliday said. “We’re a team that can win games, but we need to learn how to win. We didn’t do a great job of it tonight, but it takes us a step in the right direction.”
Toward toughness, they hope.