WSU looks good -- in flashes

CALL IT A one-week aberration. Six days after running the ball against Eastern Washington as much as he has in his 11-year coaching career, Washington State coach Mike Leach finally unleashed the Air Raid offense. That hardly means Friday's 35-27 win at UNLV was a masterpiece, though.

Sophomore Connor Halliday, who completed 26 of 45 passes for 378 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions, started in place of senior Jeff Tuel (right knee) and showed some of the big-play potential he displayed in limited playing time – along with some inconsistencies. Halliday ruined a promising drive that was buoyed by a pair of personal-foul penalties against the Rebels (0-3) before he was intercepted by John Lotulelei.

But only a rare drop by Marquess Wilson prevented Halliday, who said during a postgame radio interview that he expected to start in Tuel's place in the direct aftermath of Saturday's win against EWU, from potentially throwing five first-half touchdowns.

Halliday is not sure whether the performance is good enough to keep the starting job.

"We'll see," he said. "I need to play better in the fourth quarter when we have a shot to get out of here with a win."

If the defensive performance is any indication, those are plays the Cougars (2-1) are going to need to capitalize on most of their opportunities. That is because unit largely was ineffective as UNLV, which entered the game ranked 100th among Football Bowl Subdivision programs with an average of 177.5 passing yards per game, had little problem attacking WSU's secondary. Quarterback Nick Sherry, who completed just 50 percent of his passes, was 33 of 49 for 351 yards, three touchdowns and one interception against the Cougars.

After Halliday threw 4- and 18-yard touchdown passes to Wilson, who had 110 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions during his 21st birthday, and Isiah Myers, respectively, it appeared WSU was en route to its second consecutive blow-out win against the Rebels. But Sherry responded by finding Marcus Sullivan for a 37-yard touchdown when Anthony Carpenter got lost in coverage and UNLV never fell too far behind.

The Cougars added two more second quarter touchdowns – sandwiched by a 22-yard field goal by the Rebels' Nolan Kohorst – on 52- and 22-yard touchdown passes by Halliday to freshman Gabe Marks and Wilson, respectively. Marks had a team-high 126 yards on six receptions.

While WSU's offense finally showed it was capable of producing explosive plays, its defense seemed to give up just as many. After taking a 28-10 lead, UNLV needed just one play for Sherry to find Sullivan, who practically carried cornerback Damante Horton to the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown.

The defense nearly faltered again on the Rebels' ensuing drive as they drove down to the WSU 1-yard line before Rebels' coach Bobby Hauck elected to have Kohorst kick an 18-yard field goal instead of running one more play.

And, for a second straight week, it felt too close. After all, this is a UNLV team that lost last week , 17-14, against Northern Arizona from the Big Sky. Two weeks ago, the Rebels produced just 275 yards of total offense against Minnesota despite going to triple overtime.

IT AGAIN COMES down to execution. UNLV converted 9 of 17 third-down plays, while the Cougars were just 5 of 14.

The coaches continually rotated out defensive backs – and not just for personnel reasons.

"We've got to go out there and play better in the secondary," Leach said.

"Some of those guys in the secondary talk about being tough. They need to play tough."

The defense might tout, similar to the 30-6 loss in the season opener at Brigham Young, that it was much more effective during the second half. But more incomplete performances won't be good enough against potent Pac-12 offenses.

WSU compounded its penchant for giving up big plays by making significant mistakes. That was on display during the fourth quarter when the Cougars were penalized seven times. None of WSU's 12 penalties were more significant than after running back Leon Brooks scored on a 3-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter and the Cougars stopped the Rebels on fourth down during consecutive drives.

After Sherry threw an incompletion on third down at the WSU 38, safety Deone Bucannon was cited for a personal foul for hitting a defenseless player high for a second straight week. Bucannon, who was suspended for the first half this week after his hit on EWU wide receiver Greg Herd, gave the Rebels a first down. Two plays later, Sherry found Jake Phillips for a 4-yard touchdown.

"We need to quit entertaining fatigue," Leach said. "We're jumping on the fatigue bandwagon way too quick. We need to be tougher."

And more efficient.

After recovering the onside kick, the Cougars only gained one first down and Leach gambled that senior Carl Winston could convert a fourth-down run. He did not and that gave UNLV possession at its own 36.

For a second consecutive week, WSU had to watch an opposing quarterback hurl a Hail Mary toward to end zone. But Sherry's pass fell incomplete and the Cougars won a road contest for just the third time in their last 29 attempts.

Once again, it should have been much easier. Leach summed it up succinctly: "We've got to be more consistent."

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME: Wilson's 81-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter gave WSU a 28-10 advantage. It was a necessary buffer.

CATCH OF THE GAME: Both Marks and Wilson had numerous high-quality catches. True freshman Brett Bartolone's 17-yard catch on a low throw from Halliday on third-and-long might have been as impressive as any.

STAT OF THE GAME: Marks and Wilson both exceeded 100 receiving yards. That is the kind of production expected from the Air Raid.

MISLEADING STAT OF THE GAME: Tim Cornett rushed for 89 yards -- 4.4 yards per carry -- but 32 of those came on one play. Even when that number is included, UNLV averaged just 3.3 yards per carry.

LEADING TACKLERS: Redshirt freshman linebacker Darryl Monroe had 10 tackles, while senior Travis Long added nine stops, including two sacks. Two more linebackers, Justin Sagote and Eric Oertel, also had seven tackles.

NEXT GAME: The Cougars open Pac-12 play at noon Saturday against Colorado. This will mark the first time in the eight-game series that the teams will play at Martin Stadium. The 2001 game scheduled for Martin Stadium was rescheduled three years later in Seattle because of 9/11.

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