PULLMAN – The Washington State students who resisted the urge to get a head start on their Thanksgiving break were rewarded with a postgame celebration that had little to do with the name or record of the Cougars’ opponent.
Fans stormed the field as the sun set in Pullman, reveling in the realization that WSU’s 49-37 win on Senior Night over the visiting Utah Utes (4-7, 1-7 Pac-12) makes the Cougars (6-5, 4-4) bowl eligible for the first time since 2006.
“It just feels really good to be able to send those guys out like that, especially the guys in my class that didn’t redshirt,” quarterback Connor Halliday said. “We’ve kind of been through the ringer. Been through a coaching change, been through 2-win seasons, been through everything and the guys that are still here – it shows those guys’ character. I’d go to war with them any day.”
Led by Halliday’s 488 passing yards and four touchdowns, the WSU offense could seemingly do no wrong on Saturday. The junior quarterback threw no interceptions completed 39 of 62 passes and finished with a passer rating of 150.3.
“I thought he played really well,” coach Mike Leach said. “He was composed, he does a good job leading and running the offensive unit. He did a really good job of it today.”
Halliday is now the Pac-12 record holder with 597 passes this season. His 380 completions are only eight short of the conference record.
Marcus Mason kept the Utes honest defensively with 86 rushing yards on 10 carries. The most important was a 50-yard scamper in the third quarter that came on WSU’s first play from scrimmage after Utah cut the Cougars’ lead to 36-30.
“Besides being a fast run and making people miss, it was also a forceful run,” Leach said. “He carried some people towards the end, too.”
Only a missed field goal and a failed two-point conversion kept the Cougars from scoring 50-plus. But it was the defense that provided the crucial scores in the win in front of an announced crowd of 23,112 at Martin Stadium.
“This just goes to show what this offense can do when we play together. When we struggled in the middle of the year it was not all 11 (players) playing at once,” Halliday said. “We were dropping a ball, we were missing a throw, I’m calling a bad run check, the offensive line is missing blocks. When everybody is playing together that’s what this offense can do.”
While the offense had an efficient opening drive that ended with a touchdown, the next two scores came courtesy of senior defensive backs who were playing for the final time in Martin Stadium.
Cornerback Damante Horton ran 22 yards to the end zone to give WSU a 14-0 lead after intercepting Utah quarterback Adam Schulz’s first pass of the drive. Four plays later the defense did it again. This time it was Casey Locker making a memory in his last home game, thanks in part to pressure from Kache Palacio that forced Schulz into a bad throw.
Those scores would prove to be the difference in the 12-point WSU win. The Utes outscored the Cougars 37-28 from that point forward and finished the game with 23 first downs to WSU’s 22.
But each time Utah would cut the score the Cougars were able to rebuild their lead.
“I thought we had a chance to put them away, I wish we had,” Leach said. “But by the same token, down the stretch we responded really well.”
WSU players and coaches credited the offensive line’s performance for the offense’s ability to continue scoring and keep the Utes at bay. Entering Saturday night’s game, Utah led the nation with 36 sacks on the season, but were unable to register any on Halliday.
“In the back of your mind you know that they’re leading the nation in sacks. We just went out, and they gave us problems at times,” senior center Elliott Bosch said. “But when they did, Connor got rid of the ball and we just tried to focus on our jobs and not worry about them.”
The Cougars are bowl eligible for the first time since 2006. But as happened that season, eligibility is no guarantee of an invitation, and to assure a postseason berth WSU will need to win next week’s Apple Cup and finish 7-5.
“As a player, you really don’t want to leave it up to chance,” Halliday said.