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John Blanchette: Throwin’ Samoan has Coug QB Connor Halliday’s back

Everything you needed to know about Connor Halliday’s odometer-roll performance on Saturday night you could find out on Twitter. A sampling:

“The best passing display by a CougQB I’ve ever witnessed.”

–@JackTS14

“If you pass 70 times a game, you better have 600+ pass yards, Connor Halliday isn’t even impressive.”

–@Joshfreeman75

If you don’t know Jack, the TS14 in his handle should alert you that it’s none other than the Throwin’ Samoan himself, former Washington State quarterback Jack Thompson – who didn’t exactly invent the forward pass in Pullman but, well, branded it, to stoop to the current annoyance.

And if you don’t know Josh, well, he’s the guy at the next barstool or on hold for Jim Rome or posting like mad wherever the commentariat gathers.

And this is the disconnect du jour in any discussion of the Cougars and Connor Halliday.

The ink is not yet dry on Halliday’s NCAA record 734 passing yards from Saturday night – in part because it was entered in pencil, there being a chance further amendments are coming, and in part because the Cougars lost and some hyper-vigilant bookkeepers want to attach an asterisk.

You know, of course, that spectacular pratfalls by the Cougars’ defense and special teams turned the record into a footnote to a 60-59 loss to Cal. Even two days later as Halliday was being named Pac-12 Player of the Week, his recognition was buried under the rubble of coach Mike Leach firing special teams coach Eric Russell – the bold new template for crisis management at Wazzu.

Halliday could be justifiably torn about this circumstance, though he was at his good-soldier best Tuesday morning.

“Quarterbacks are judged on wins and losses,” he said. “It’s my job to find us a way to win the game. I didn’t do that.”

He was a little more unguarded two months ago at the Pac-12’s media blitz, where both the Cougs and their quarterback were afterthoughts and he lamented, “I’m going into my senior year and what else in the world do I have to do to get a little recognition?”

Except he knows exactly what. He answered his own question with his terse analysis on Tuesday.

The Cougars are 2-4, facing what Halliday has already twice called a “must win” at Stanford on Friday night and if he’s on pace for college football’s first 6,000-yard passing season, he understands it will be mostly derided and devalued if the Cougars can’t find their way to a game in December – even if it’s not especially his fault.

But this seems to be his lot. He is not only breaking all the records at Wazzu, but he’s got a good chance to displace Alex Brink as the school’s most unappreciated quarterback of the modern era. Not nationally – Cougar appreciation is always subdued in that regard. But statewide and even locally, the perspective on Halliday seems, well, jaundiced.

“Then they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” Thompson insisted. “Shame on them. If you’re not able to appreciate that talent, that skill, then you’re clueless.”

There’s a wrinkled parallel to the Thompson-Halliday lineage. Thompson’s passing stats were outsized for his day and he, too, played on some win-challenged teams – he was 12-17-1 as a starter. And yet he earned the colorful nickname, had his jersey retired and remains a hailed figure.

Halliday, meanwhile, has come to prominence at the end of a Cougar era even more grim than what preceded Thompson’s arrival. Yet even as Leach has heralded Halliday as the Pac-12’s best quarterback – we’ll see if his brethren agree when the all-league vote is taken – his 9-16 record as a starter is disparaged and he’s dismissed as a “system” quarterback.

By which people mean an “opportunity” quarterback – as in 60 passing opportunities a game.

“Do they think it’s an easy system?” Thompson said. “Yeah, I wish I’d played in a system like that, but it’s not easy. The types of passes Connor was making the other night were nothing short of amazing. Adjusting to what he was seeing, and anticipating his receivers adjusting to what they were seeing – as a former quarterback, I found it an incredible thing to watch.”

Halliday estimated he audibled 40-45 percent of Leach’s initital calls on Saturday, not an insignificant gesture of trust – “but he doesn’t put a guy out there until he trusts him,” said Halliday, who finally felt that trust in the spring of 2013.

“Something would go awry in practice and he would stop it and give the offense 30 up-downs and start yelling at us,” Halliday recalled. “Toward the middle to the end of that spring, he’d kind of look at me to huddle guys up and get them refocused.”

Which, obviously, is what the Cougars need now. Pinball numbers are one thing; where he leads the Cougars will define his time at Wazzu, though he could surely use some help on that score.

In the meantime …

“For anyone to walk away from what they saw from him Saturday night and not appreciate that,” sighed Thompson, “that’s too bad.”

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