TUCSON, Ariz. – It took a trip to the desert for the Washington State football team to find its oasis. The Cougars (5-5, 3-4) ended a three-game losing streak that spanned five weeks by earning a 24-17 victory over Arizona (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12) in front of a partisan – if somewhat thin – Wildcats home crowd.
“It’s a positive,” coach Mike Leach said. “You talk about playing four quarters, you talk about finishing, in our case in particular I thought we did a good job of focusing on individual plays and not getting ahead of ourselves and not extending any anxiety on a bad play or celebrating a good play.”
The WSU defense allowed the Wildcats just three points in the second half.
The Cougars held UA off on four attempts inside the WSU 20-yard line after WSU quarterback Connor Halliday connected with Isiah Myers for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:15 left in the game.
Quarterback B.J. Denker found receiver Samajie Grant in the end zone on the last play of the game, but the WSU secondary forced Grant to make the catch out of bounds.
Unlike their previous game against Arizona State, WSU got out to a hot start against the Sun Devils’ rival. Each team stalled on its first drive and then quarterback Connor Halliday marched the Cougars down the field with back-to-back passes of 12 and 13 yards to Vince Mayle. Running back Marcus Mason capped the drive with a 15-yard run to the end zone.
Whether on the ground or through the air, WSU’s success moving the ball all started with the big guys on the line.
“I just want to start out by saying huge game by the offensive line,” quarterback Connor Halliday said. “To be able to run the ball for (101) yards – the sacks we had were coverage sacks, obviously, they gave me all day.”
The victory gives WSU five wins for the first time since the 2007 season.
Perhaps more importantly, it brings the Cougars to within one win of being bowl eligible for the first time since 2006. WSU last played in a bowl game in 2003.
“I’ve been here for about three years now and ever since I got here I felt like everyone was just against us. Everybody laughed at us nobody ever believed in us, nobody ever gave us a chance,” linebacker Darryl Monroe said. “Before you even step on the field you get this swagger about yourself, this chip on your shoulder.”
On the winning play Myers ran a slant route across the middle and then broke towards the sideline when Halliday started to scramble. He caught the ball at the 8-yard line and spun past defensive back Will Parks and into the end zone.
“During practice we do it all the time, Coach Leach harps on catching the ball and getting straight up field,” Myers said. “You can feel the guy coming so I just ducked – I was trying to brace.”
WSU found success on the offensive side of the ball as well. Halliday was efficient, completing 39 of 53 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns. His second score gave him 46 career touchdowns, tying him with four-time NFL Pro Bowler Drew Bledsoe for fifth all-time at WSU.
“Really good, I thought it was the best game he’s played,” Leach said. “Completed nearly 80 percent. In particular what I thought he did really well was control the offense, keep them focused.”
WSU started the second half much like they began the first, and retook the lead on Halliday’s 23-yard touchdown pass to River Cracraft. The Cougars only had to go 31 yards for the score thanks to a fumbled punt by Arizona on the half’s opening possession.
The play continued an impressive stretch by Cracraft, a freshman, who has amassed 186 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns over the past three games.
If there was an area for improvement in WSU’s game it was in the kicking game. Punter Mike Bowlin had an exceptional start to the game, pinning Arizona with a pair of punts to the 10-yard line. But then Bowlin followed a 3,,-yard punt with a pair of kickoffs that landed out of bounds, giving UA the ball on the 35-yard line. Each team missed a field goal in the fourth quarter.
Those errors proved minor, however, and the Cougars won their third Pac-12 road game of the season. Heading into this season WSU had won a total of just three conference games away from Pullman since October of 2006.
“It feels great, I’m ecstatic, I’m just happy,” Monroe said. “It feels a lot like the USC win but more intense. It came down to the wire and things started going in slow motion but that’s why you play the game.”