PULLMAN – Connor Halliday finished Saturday’s game exactly how Washington State wanted.
That is: on the sidelines, wearing a baseball cap, watching as freshman Austin Apodaca made his collegiate debut with the Martin Stadium bleachers emptying in the fourth quarter.
That Big Sky member Southern Utah was WSU’s opponent in its home opener is of little consequence. What’s more important – and what the Cougars had yet to achieve in the Mike Leach era – was that they walk out of here with not only a victory, but a convincing one.
So, yes, 48-10 will do just fine.
“We’ve had some days where we moved the ball quite a bit,” said Halliday, the junior, “but this is probably the best day we’ve had in Leach’s offense.”
It was also the easiest, most complete, most dominant WSU victory since Leach was hired as coach, and it improved the Cougars to 2-1 with another likely cakewalk – Idaho, after all – waiting next weekend.
It was what the Cougars were supposed to do, sure. They exploited athletic advantages, they pushed the Thunderbirds around on both sides of the ball, and they emptied their bench in the fourth quarter.
But the memories of last season’s too-close-for-comfort victories over Eastern Washington and UNLV will remind that these lopsided victories haven’t been particularly frequent around here.
“We come out and we’re coached to respect every team, because we know that when you don’t, teams will come back and smack you in the face,” said defensive tackle Toni Pole. “That was prevalent last year.”
Maybe this is an indication that those days are closer to the past than the future. Halliday more or less did as he pleased on Saturday, completing his first 10 passes – the fifth a 43-yard touchdown to Dom Williams on a go-route, the first of two such scoring tosses – and finishing with the most impressive stat line he’s compiled under Leach: 32 for 41, 383 yards, five touchdowns and one interception that was the result of a mix-up with a receiver.
So it was 7-0, then 14-3, then 28-10 at halftime. Halliday completed passes to 10 receivers, including touchdowns to Gabe Marks, Isiah Myers, Vince Mayle and two to Williams.
“That was probably the first time since I’ve been here at WSU that we’ve been able to step on their throat, keep the gas pedal down and not give them any chance of coming back in the game,” Halliday said. “That was another step for us as a team.”
Southern Utah (2-1) advertised itself as a physical outfit, more weightlifters than football players. Maybe that’s why the Thunderbirds didn’t score in the second half, and had considerable trouble moving the ball after making decent progress on their first few drives.
They had the ball on WSU’s side of the field, trailing 21-10, less than a minute remaining until halftime. Quarterback Aaron Cantu absorbed a hit just as he released a throw to Griff McNabb near the left sideline, but it was too high and sailed directly into the hands of WSU cornerback Damante Horton.
Horton sprinted 72 yards for a score without being touched, and the Thunderbirds were done.
“At first, I thought the pass was going to get to him, so I was just ready to make a tackle,” Horton said. “Then I saw it come over his head, and I just caught it.”
SUU’s straight-ahead rushing offense was stymied in the second half, the Cougars yielding just 61 yards of total offense in that period after allowing 158 in the first half.
“We were just letting them move the ball too much, let them off the field on some third downs, then they really stoked it up and got turnovers,” Leach said. “Then there were some that were close to turnovers. They were around the ball and in position, and if you’re that close and you’re getting your hands on the ball, you’re going to end up with some of them.”
They ended up more than doubling SUU’s offensive output, WSU averaging 7.1 yards per play to the Thunderbirds’ 3.4, and outgained the visiting team 464-219.
“This is how we’re supposed to play against everybody, not just an FCS team,” said Marks, who caught seven passes for 83 yards. “When we go in the Pac-12 and play against all those good teams, we expect to do the same thing. We’re a confident group. Hats off to Southern Utah. They played hard the whole game. We just came out and executed our plays and made routine plays and made things happen.”
Enough to breathe easy in the fourth quarter, a period of consternation too often in recent years.