Competition and fight for jobs, always

WASHINGTON STATE COACH Paul Wulff discussed Utah in depth, the Cougars' quarterback situation and much more Tuesday.

Some of the most successful football coaches obsessively preach competition, competition, competition. You have to earn your job, and then keep it, through performance.

And so Wulff did not discount that Connor Halliday, who set conference records in passing yards (494) and touchdowns (four) for a freshman during Saturday's 37-27 win against Arizona State, could unseat Jeff Tuel next season.

"I think we want competition all the time," Wulff said. "That's how you build a program. If Connor plays himself into that role -- it's always going to be competition."

He said Halliday, who will make his first start at 2 p.m. Saturday against Utah (TV: FCS Atlantic)on Saturday, also had to do that this season. A few weeks ago, Wulff said he and offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy had a discussion with Halliday about how he could earn playing time.

"He ramped up his consistency and focus level in practice," he said.

Wulff said after the 30-7 loss Nov. 5 at California, the coaching staff decided it was time to give Halliday an opportunity. Senior Marshall Lobbestael, who has started seven games this season, completed just 15 of 37 passes for 155 yards in that contest and Wulff said the team needed more consistency from that position.

While Halliday had improved, he hadn't shown in practice he was ready to do all of what he did against ASU this past Saturday.

"We didn't know that (Halliday) was going to play to that level or else we would've played him a lot longer ago," Wulff said.

Halliday noted after Saturday that picking up Sturdy's offense has been a challenge. Wulff said he has seen Halliday become more comfortable in the system since spring practices.

"We want to be wide open and multiple," he said. "That's why you have a system and program and keep repeating the teaching."

Listed at 6-foot-4, 181 pounds, Halliday still is not physically mature. And there's no question Tuel has a far better understanding of the offense -- as he should having been in the system longer and taking the reps with the 1s.

But Wulff said he likes Halliday's competitiveness, accuracy and vision. He said Halliday's composure showed when he found sophomore wide receiver Marquess Wilson for an 85-yard touchdown on his first pass.

"Into the next series, you could tell he felt comfortable and in his element out there," Wulff said.

Halliday and the offense face significant challenges against the Utes as WSU (4-6 overall, 2-5 Pac-12) attempts to win consecutive conference games for the first time since defeating Oregon and UCLA in 2006.

WULFF SAID UTAH (6-4, 3-4), which allows an average of 335.7 yards per game to rank 27th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, might feature the best defensive line in the conference. The Utes allow just 100.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks ninth in FBS. He said Star Lotulelei, who has six tackles for loss, is "the best defensive tackle we've seen." Wulff also noted that linebacker Brian Blechen, who was a Freshman All-American safety last year, also "sticks out." Blechen has 62 tackles -- 6 ½ for loss -- and two interceptions this season.

"They're very veteran and big and strong," Wulff said. "I've had NFL scouts tell me they have several draft picks on that defense. That's more of a concern than anything (schematically) they do."

He said the Cougars' offensive line played better and was more physical against the Sun Devils and that has to continue.

"Our offensive line has to play very well," Wulff said. "They've got a huge challenge on their hands.

"We've got to convert some passes in some challenging situations."

He acknowledges it is a tough assignment for Halliday, who did not enter until the third series of the game against ASU.

"There's a difference and that's always a concern," Wulff said. "You're a little more relaxed coming off the bench. We're hoping Connor can handle that. You've got to get that first start sometime."

Defensively, WSU stopped Sun Devils' running back Cameron Marshall, who was limited to just 37 hashes and 2.3 yards per carry against the Cougars. When WSU shutdown Marshall early, ASU virtually abandoned its running. Wulff said that will not happen with the Utes.

"They're more committed to running the ball than Arizona State," he said. "(John White IV is) a really good back and will get his yards."

White has 1,191 yards and 12 touchdowns on 238 carries this season. Wulff said the Utes also feature a talented offensive line. They also have not turned the ball over during their three consecutive victories, which Wulff said has been a significant factor in their success.

Despite losing five consecutive games before beating the Sun Devils, WSU can remain in contention for its first bowl game since 2003 with a win.

"There's a high sense of urgency and importance on this game," Wulff said. "I think there's a sense of excitement."

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Junior long snapper Zach Koepp (concussion) will be sidelined against Utah. Wulff said walk-on true freshman Alex Den Bleyker will take his place. Koepp was replaced by Den Bleyker when he was injured in the first quarterback against the Sun Devils.

  • As previously reported by CF.C, Wulff discussed the possibility of making changes on the coverage team after the Cougars surrendered their FBS-worst fourth touchdown return for a kickoff Saturday. He said any changes will be determined by Thursday.

  • WSU is 2-1 against the Pac-12 South Division and could be undefeated if it held on to a fourth-quarter lead in a 28-25 loss Oct. 8 at UCLA. But the Cougars are 0-4 versus the North Division.

    "We're in a tough division," Wulff said. "We know that."


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