Two-minute drill: Cougs go big when it counts

THE COUGS MADE it happen – and they did in a big way. The Cougars became bowl eligible with a 49-37 win over Utah in their home finale that featured big plays, a trio of first-quarter touchdowns and dominant performances by Connor Halliday, Dom Williams and the WSU offensive line. And for the first time since 2006, the Cougars now have six wins going into the Apple Cup.

When Teondray Caldwell was stopped for a loss on fourth-and-1 at Utah's 16 with 7:54 minutes remaining in the first quarter, it could have represented a significant momentum shift. Instead, senior cornerback Damante Horton intercepted Adam Schulz two plays later and returned it 22 yards to give the Cougars a 14-0 lead. It was Horton's third interception return for a touchdown this season. It also was the first of consecutive interceptions returned for touchdowns (Casey Locker with the other) in the space of about 90 seconds, allowing WSU to stun Utah with the early 21-0 advantage.

None were more significant than Schulz's consecutive interceptions that were returned for touchdowns during the first quarter. The latter, which was returned 39 yards by senior safety Casey Locker, might have been even more impressive than Horton's. Locker corralled Schulz's tipped pass and took advantage of a series of blocks to reach the end zone. The Cougars had some other memorable defensive plays:

  • On fourth-and-3 at WSU's 46, Schulz targeted Nate Orchard but true freshman cornerback Daquawn Brown's blanket coverage helped force an incompletion early in the fourth quarter.

  • The Cougars' defensive line was strong against Utah's running game for the most part. One of their biggest plays came on fourth-and-2 midway through the final period when senior nose tackle Ioane Gauta stuffed running back Kelvin York.

    Junior Dom Williams caught a 44-yard pass on the Cougars' opening drive to Utah's 21-yard line. Williams had to battle Utes' defensive back Justin Thomas to retain possession on the play. Five plays later, Williams finished the drive with a 5-yard touchdown catch from junior quarterback Connor Halliday that gave WSU a 7-0 lead with 10:58 minutes left in the first quarter.

    Utah came into the game leading the entire nation in sacks. The WSU offensive line surrendered exactly zero of them in the game. Wow!

    The Cougars' defense has struggled this season, but given that they were facing Schulz, a backup quarterback and former walk-on, it was a little surprising that they needed to score as many points as they did to prevail.

    Schulz's yards per completion (7.5) were similar to Halliday's (7.9) even though he only completed 21 of 46 passes.

    Utah had 134-94 advantage in rushing yards, but the Cougars were much more effective as they averaged 5.9 yards per carry to 3.8 for the Utes.

    It was frustrating to watch the Cougars' inability to close out the game. After taking a 21-0 lead during the first quarter, there was no reason the game should have been close at any point during the second half. But WSU made just enough mistakes to allow the Utes to maintain their upset hopes. The most egregious error came early in the fourth quarter with the Cougars leading 43-30 and facing first-and-10 at Utah's 37. Halliday found sophomore Gabe Marks for a 2-yard completion, but he was stripped by Jason Whittingham. Reginald Porter recovered the fumble, and two plays later Schulz connected with Jake Murphy on a 64-yard touchdown with 12:38 remaining in the game. Marks' gaffe could have been the turnover of the year had WSU lost. The Cougars repeatedly were victimized by Murphy and Dres Anderson, who is the son of former Los Angeles Rams' standout Willie "Flipper" Anderson. Similar to his father, who was known for his big-play ability, Anderson burned the Cougars' secondary repeatedly. Anderson had 129 yards on five receptions. Fortunately for WSU, Halliday had his second straight outstanding performance. He completed 39 of 62 passes for 488 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. One challenge with the Air Raid this season has been the offense's struggles to generate an explosive play. Too often they would build a drive only to settle for a field goal, or worse, turn the ball over. Williams, who had 154 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions, filled that void with the best game of his career and he played most of the game clearly bothered by an injury, limping more and more noticeably as the game progressed. His 71-yard touchdown reception with 4:42 left finally helped secure the victory. For a second consecutive game, the offensive line also deserves a world of credit as Halliday rarely was pressured by a team that has been as sack-happy as they come. Also, it never hurts to have several highly touted recruits witness a thrilling victory.

    Overall, neither team particularly was impressive in this facet of the game. WSU had a clear field possession advantage during the first half until a fumbled punt return with the Cougars leading 30-14 gave the Utes possession at WSU's 40 midway through the second quarter. Both teams also missed extra-point opportunities during the first half. Andrew Furney made a 52-yard field goal to end the first half, but missed one for the same distance in the second half. The Cougars were, however, stellar on kickoff coverage.

    WSU plays at 12:30 p.m. Friday at Washington (TV: Fox).

    WSU 7-0
    10:58: Dom Williams 5-yard touchdown reception from Connor Halliday. Key play: On second-and-18 from his own 35-yard line, Halliday threw a deep pass that Williams battled for with Justin Thomas and won for a 44-yard gain.
    WSU 14-0
    7:17: Damante Horton 22-yard interception returned for touchdown.
    WSU 21-0
    5:56: Casey Locker 39-yard interception returned for touchdown.
    WSU 21-7
    1:07: Kelvin York scored on a 14-yard draw play.
    WSU 21-14
    13:24: York 2-yard run.
    WSU 24-14
    11:01: Andrew Furney 27-yard field goal. Key play: On third-and-7 from their own 45, Halliday found Marcus Mason for a 42-yard completion.
    WSU 30-14
    7:16: Mason 9-yard touchdown catch from Halliday.
    WSU 30-20
    1:19: Dres Anderson 3-yard touchdown reception from Schulz.
    WSU 33-14
    0:00: Furney 52-yard field goal. Key plays: With just 1:13 remaining when the Cougars took over at their own 27, Halliday had 9- and 16-yard completions to Teondray Caldwell and Isiah Myers, respectively. Mason then had a 13-yard carry to the Utes' 35 that helped put Furney into field-goal range.
    WSU 33-23
    12:19: Andy Phillips 34-yard field goal.
    WSU 36-23
    9:02: Furney 28-yard field goal. Key plays: On third-and-1 at their own 38, Mason caught a 10-yard pass from Halliday. On third-and-10 at Utah's 48, Halliday found River Cracraft for a 15-yard completion.
    WSU 36-30
    6:58: Jake Murphy 11-yard touchdown reception from Schulz.
    WSU 43-30
    5:34: Vince Mayle 8-yard reception from Halliday. On the first play of the drive, Mason broke a 50-yard run to the Utes' 25.
    WSU 43-37
    12:28: Murphy 64-yard touchdown catch from Schulz.
    WSU 49-37
    4:42: Williams 71-yard touchdown pass from Halliday.
    CF.C associate editor Jennifer Chancellor contributed to this report

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