'You can feel that confidence coming around'

PULLMAN – What's the difference between Mike Leach and the big man upstairs? Wazzu QB Halliday had a quip at the ready on Monday. Toni Pole, Taylor Taliulu and Kristoff Williams all weigh in, plus lots of other notes and nuggets.

The Washington State Cougars, heavy underdogs in so many games in recent years, find themselves listed as heavy favorites for the second week in a row. Halliday says improved talent, maturity and focus makes this year's Cougars quite capable of handling the higher expectations.

"You play whoever you play on the schedule," Halliday noted at Monday's weekly media session with selected players at the Bohler Athletic Complex. "We don't get to decide that. That's the big man upstairs."

Asked whether he was referring to Cougars Leach or the OTHER "big man upstairs," Halliday offered a response that drew laughter from the media.

"Basically the same," Halliday deadpanned.

The 2-1 Cougars, bidding for their first three-game winning streak since 2006, are 31 point favorites against 0-3 Idaho. Saturday's homecoming game at Martin Stadium is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.

The Vandals, who have lost nine straight overall and seven straight against WSU, are young and rebuilding under first-year coach Paul Petrino. They've given up at least 40 points and 438 yards every game, and they rank last in the nation with 21 quarterback sacks allowed and eight lost fumbles. WSU leads the series 70-17-3.

The temptation for the Cougars to look past their final non-conference game to the following game -- a Sept. 28 "home" contest in Seattle versus fifth-ranked Stanford – seems obvious. Halliday said he accepts responsibility to help keep his team's attention on Idaho.

"As the leader of the team, that's what you're looked upon to do," he said. "Make sure nobody gets complacent. Make sure nobody overlooks anything. I don't think that'll happen."

USA Today ranks Idaho 119th among 125 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Vandals played their first close game Saturday, losing 45-35 at home to Northern Illinois despite giving up nine sacks.

USA Today ranks NIU 33rd. The Cougars are ranked 59th after starting the season 87th. Players say better talent is only part of the reason behind WSU's rise.

"This group is more dedicated than any other group I've been a part of … (and) this is the closest group I've ever been a part of since I played high school football," Halliday said.

"We're one tight unit," safety Taliulu agreed.

"You can feel that confidence coming around," wide receiver Kristoff Williams said.

WSU athletic director Bill Moos said he expects a sellout Saturday.

The Cougars came up about 1,600 short of a full house in the 48-10 win over Southern Utah. Advance ticket sales for Idaho have been good and are ahead of last week's pace. The Cougars have had only one sellout (last year's home opener with EWU) since an Oct. 6, 2007 game against Arizona State.

Moos said he would have preferred an afternoon start for homecoming this Saturday, but TV networks dictate times.

The Cougars learned Monday that the Stanford game will be televised at 7 or 7:30 p.m. on ESPN or ESPN2, respectively. Moos said he requested an evening kickoff at CenturyLink Field, since the Seattle Mariners will be playing baseball next door that afternoon (1:10 p.m.) at Safeco Field.

An agreement between the Mariners, the city and the operators of CenturyLink Field calls for an approximate four hour window between the expected completion of one game and the start of another at the two stadiums.

The Cougars and Vandals met every season for years, but they last played one another in 2007, a 45-28 Cougar win. WSU players said they know little about the once-heated "Battle of the Palouse."

"I haven't been here that long," Pole, a junior defensive end, said with a smile. "Well, actually, I feel like I've been here forever."

"I expect them to be fired up," Taliulu said. "It's a game that means a lot to them. It means a lot to us."

"We want to be the best on the Palouse. Always," Pole said. "You always want to be the best, so there is a pride thing with that."

Asked if a March altercation between Idaho wide receiver Roman Runner and former WSU wide receiver Mansel Simmons will have any carryover, Halliday said, "No. We're just concerned about winning the game. That's the only thing on our mind."

Pullman Police said Runner knocked Simmons unconscious with a punch when Simmons charged at Runner after players on the two teams began arguing at a party. Both players were found to be at fault, and no charges were filed. Simmons remains in school, but head injuries suffered in the altercation forced him to give up football.

Williams, who plans to go to law school, carries a 3.65 grade point average. He says it isn't easy combining school and football.

"There's a lot of late nights," he said. "I'm tired every day, honestly, at practice. I've got to keep going, try to just find ways to push through."

If pro football doesn't pan out, Williams said he aspires to become a Manhattan district attorney in New York City. Williams' mother grew up in the Queens borough of the Big Apple, and his father - an Army colonel currently serving in Afghanistan - was raised on nearby Long Island.

Granted, it's early but one year after WSU ranked 98th in the nation with 262.7 passing yards allowed per game, the Cougars after Week 3 lead the nation at 99.7.

"It feels amazing," Pole said. "We put in the hard hours in the summer."

The Cougars rank 11th in total defense (268.7) and 23rd in scoring defense (16.0). Opponents convert on third down just 26.8 percent of the time. That ranks 10th.

On offense, the Cougars rank 17th in passing (323.0), but just 72nd in scoring (27.3), 77th in total offense (383.3) and 121st in rushing (60.3).

Among the numerous WSU-Idaho connections this week -- Idaho defensive linemen Maxx Forde and Quayshawne Buckley, both of whom were originally headed to WSU. Forde, the son of former Cougars star linebacker Brian Forde, changed his mind after making a verbal commitment to Washington State. Buckley failed to qualify academically at WSU.

Former WSU and Idaho coach Dennis Erickson is the father of Vandals quarterbacks coach Bryce Erickson. Halliday's father, Duane, starred at quarterback at Coeur d'Alene High School, as did Idaho quarterback Chad Chalich. Duane wound up playing quarterback at Boise State. Idaho was one of the few schools besides WSU to offer Halliday a scholarship, though Halliday verbally committed to WSU in June between his junior and senior years.

Former WSU defensive coordinator Robb Akey and ex-Cougars quarterback Jason Gesser served as Idaho's head coaches last year. Gesser was promoted from offensive coordinator to replace Akey during Idaho's 1-11 season. Petrino did not retain Gesser, who is now the quarterbacks coach at Wyoming.

Petrino, incidentally, lives in a Pullman house he purchased. The Idaho and WSU campuses are 8 miles apart.

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