S. Utah has no answers for Cougs' dominant D

IT DOES NOT seem that long ago that Washington State had a knack for making any opposing running back look like a Heisman Trophy candidate. That is one element that made Saturday's 48-10 win against Southern Utah interesting. The Thunderbirds' coaching staff was concerned enough that it was content to challenge the Pac-12's top-ranked passing defense.

It was a strategy that worked about as well as then-coach Mike Price's plan to scale back his offense in 1999 for quarterback Steve Birnbaum. Similar to those Cougars, SUU moved the ball somewhat effectively during the first half at Martin Stadium, as evident by its large time of possession advantage. But the "dink-and-dunk" method only works so long against a capable secondary.

And when Aaron Cantu needed to challenge that secondary, it proved to be a game-changer.

Trailing 14-10 late in the second quarter and approaching midfield, Cantu decided to test true freshman cornerback Daquawn Brown. The result was an interception that eventually helped set up a 55-yard touchdown pass from junior signal-caller Connor Halliday to sophomore wide receiver Dominique Williams.

"I thought they were really scrappy out there," said WSU coach Mike Leach, referring to the defense, during a postgame radio interview. "It kind of accelerated as the game went on."

Cantu, who completed 22 of 30 passes for 146 yards, then decided to test senior Damante Horton, the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. The result was nearly identical to Horton's 70-yard touchdown return during last week's 10-7 win at No. 25 USC. Both came close to the end of the first half and the yardage was similar. Horton's 72-yard return Saturday with 38 seconds remaining gave the Cougars a 28-10 lead at halftime.

"The receiver got blown up by Cyrus (Coen), so it was an open lane for me," Horton said.

Those opportunities, which also included senior safety Deone Bucannon's second-half interception, came because the Thunderbirds knew they were overmatched against WSU's defensive line, consisting of starters Xavier Cooper, Ioane Gauta and Toni Pole. On the Pac-12 Networks' broadcast, it was noted that SUU's defensive coaches felt the Cougars' line was among the best in the country. The Cougars did not disappoint as they limited the Thunderbirds to 73 yards on 34 carries.

Those plays helped WSU reverse a recent trend against Big Sky opponents. Last year, an Eastern Washington Hail Mary fell short to preserve the Cougars' 24-20 win. Three years ago, WSU had to rally for a 23-22 victory against Montana State.

This time, the Cougars eliminated any late-game drama with 34 unanswered points. Halliday completed 32 of 41 passes for 383 yards, five touchdowns and an interception. One telltale statistic in a successful Air Raid offense is the quarterback's ability to find many different receivers. That was the case against the Thunderbirds as 10 players caught passes.

Leach felt Halliday received too much criticism for the combined five interceptions he threw in road games at Auburn and USC to start the season. Halliday's five touchdowns Saturday gave him 30 in three seasons, moving him past Marshall Lobbestael and Mark Rypien into eighth place in program history.

"I think the competition element has something to do with that, too," he said. "We played two really good teams on the road."

SIMILAR TO THE DEFENSE, Dominique Williams said to look no further than the line when it comes to the offense's success.

"That's where it starts," said Williams, who had 101 yards and two touchdowns on three receptions. "The offensive line and the defensive line are the heart of the team."

Sophomore wide receiver Gabe Marks, who had a game-high seven receptions for 83 yards, agreed.

"The offensive line is totally different from last year," he said. "They're a lot bigger and faster and their footwork is a lot better."

Marks also said there was no debate when it came to whether his third-quarter touchdown was more aesthetically pleasing than Williams' 55-yard touchdown on third-and-18 that gave WSU a 21-10 lead in the second quarter. Marks said his score, which came on a 1-yard fade, was much more challenging than Williams'.

At least for the record, Williams agreed.

"When you're down there, they know what you're going to do," he said. "It's going to be a fade. You have to be physical. Gabe made a great play."

It was one of those games where pointing out flaws almost feels like nitpicking. The running game, which produced just 64 yards on 17 carries, was ineffective. But Halliday attributed that to SUU "loading the box."

He also threw his sixth interception of the season – another one that came in the red zone – that Halliday said was a result of Isiah Myers running a wrong route.

Still, the Cougars always seemed to atone for those mistakes. After Bucannon's penalty negated an interception return for a touchdown by BUCK linebacker Kache Palacio, he intercepted Cantu during the ensuing play. That play helped set up Marks' touchdown as WSU produced its most points since defeating UNLV 59-7 in 2011.

That enabled redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Apodaca, who completed 3 of 7 passes for 27 yards, to see his first collegiate playing time.

But even as impressive as the Cougars have looked to start the season, Halliday still remembers the dominance they displayed two years ago against UNLV. Because of that, he stresses that they must remain focused as they prepare for next week's homecoming game against Idaho.

"At times in the past couple of years, we've felt good about ourselves and haven't had a really great week of practice," he said. "We need to come out with our hair on fire."

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