There are a number of factors that lead to a 500-yard passing day like the one Connor Halliday had at Cal (521 yards), but you can get there in different ways. For instance, the 531 yards I passed for at Oregon State in 2005 was built mostly on vertical routes because the Beavers wanted to play press-man on guys like Jason Hill and Michael Bumpus. It also became a bit of a shootout due to some errant passes by yours truly, so WSU quarterbacks coach and play caller Timm Rosenbach was forced away from the run game. This past Saturday, though the passing totals looked eerily similar, there were some big differences in the way Connor and the WSU offense went about piling up the air yards.
Let's take a look at a few of the things that led to the second-most passing yards in Washington State Cougar football history:
CF.C'S MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK AS A Houston TEXAN IN 2008.
2) Cal's defense: For whatever (divine) reason, Cal decided that they wanted to match up and play man coverage on WSU's outside receivers. The first play of the game Connor missed a vertical against man coverage, but made up for it later in the drive by hitting Mayle on the same route for a touchdown. The two other completions on the series were also against man. Throughout the first half the Cougar receivers man handled Cal's defensive backs one-on-one, creating big plays or forcing pass interference calls.
3) Halliday's patience: As soon as Cal realized they couldn't match up to Washington State's receivers they started to mix in some zone coverage. This is where things really got ugly, because Connor smartly didn't try to force the ball downfield. Instead, he stayed patient and took the short throws or check downs. And I know one thing for certain about throwing for 500 yards -- you can't try to do it. Quarterbacks have success when they simply take what the defense gives them. A perfect example is Marcus Mason's 68-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. On second-and-ten, the Golden Bears elected to drop into Cover 2 with the corners playing soft, essentially eliminating the intermediate routes WSU was trying to exploit. Instead of attempting to fit a ball into a tight window, Halliday simply checked it down to his running back on a swing route. From there Mason did the rest and ended up in the end zone with a huge score just before halftime.
4) The Coug defense: It cannot be emphasized enough how big it was that Washington State won the turnover battle. From an offensive perspective, it gives you a lot of confidence when the defense is consistently taking the ball away and putting pressure on the other offense. And on Saturday it either provided the Cougars with good field position, or took points off the board for Cal. Despite the Bears having success throwing the ball, Jared Goff was under constant pressure all day from the WSU front four which led to interceptions and key incompletions.
5) Protection: Although last on this list, this point may be the most important to the success of the Cougar offense going forward. If the offensive line can protect like they did Saturday, there should be a lot of good days ahead for Connor Halliday the rest of the season. Clearly, Cal doesn't have the same type of pass rushers as Stanford but I couldn't help but notice how much better the WSU offensive lineman were in one-on-one situations this game. Halliday was able to consistently work through his progressions, often hitting his running back after nothing was open downfield. Connor is at his best when he steps into throws and drives the football down the field. Often when he feels pressure he will throw off his back foot or with no base at all. If the offensive line continues to hold up we will see many more throws like he made on Vince Mayle's second touchdown; a real rope that was both accurate and on time, allowing his receiver to make a big play after the catch.
Final Thought: Stats are a lot of fun to talk about, but the most important aspect of the game is winning. That is the biggest difference between my 500-yard day in 2005 and what Connor did Saturday -- he protected the football and the Cougars won. If Washington State wants to get to a bowl game they have to win games like that on the road. And it was a great bounce-back win after a tough loss last week. And I truly believe the victory Saturday shows more about the character of this team than anything else. This Saturday at home, against Oregon State, is going to be a great indicator of if Washington State is ready to take the next step.