WSU NOTEBOOK: A candid Halliday postgame

PULLMAN – Connor Halliday and his teammates on the Washington State offense had plenty of trouble trying to solve Arizona State's rock-solid defense Thursday night. But the Wazzu quarterback had no trouble explaining why the offense struggled.

"We didn't block very well," Halliday said. "I didn't throw the ball very well. We didn't catch it very well, and we didn't run very well."

Game, set, match. Not that it was of any consolation to Halliday, but WSU's defense and special teams also sputtered mightily in a 55-21 loss to the 25th-ranked Sun Devils.

"It's embarrassing to go out there and lose a game like that," defensive end Xavier Cooper said.

"Arizona State is one of the best teams in the country," WSU coach Mike Leach said. "They're tough enough without us helpin' ‘em."

The Sun Devils helped themselves to a 21-0 lead in the opening 12 minutes against a Cougars squad that looked as flat as the crowd sounded. A season-low Martin Stadium crowd of 20,617 turned out for a rare weeknight game in Pullman, but Halliday said the small turnout had nothing to do with WSU's frighteningly bad performance on Halloween.

"The bottom line is, if we played better, more people would be in the stands," Halliday said in his usual frank manner. "We can look at ourselves for that. That's our own fault."

The Cougars can also blame themselves for stunningly poor execution Thursday. Dropped balls, missed tackles, blown assignments and off-target passes were frequent.

"I don't even know how to explain it," Halliday said, "but we came out and just didn't make plays. Up front (on the offensive line), blitzes that we go through all week to pick up, we didn't pick up. Routes every day in practice that we catch (passes on), we didn't catch. Throws that I make every day in practice, I didn't make."

The Cougars had not played in 12 days following their first bye week (the same for Arizona State), but Halliday said the layoff was not to blame for WSU's problems.

"The bye couldn't have come at a better time for us," the junior said. "We were really beat up physically."

One has to wonder how badly the Cougars are beat up mentally after yielding more than 50 points and 550 yards for the third straight game – all losses.

"We're just trying to do too much," Cooper said. "We want to win so bad."

"This team has a lot of heart," safety Deone Bucannon said. "We're never going to give up."

Cooper said the Cougars "definitely" were mentally prepared coming into the game. Halliday agreed.

"Everybody was ramped up and ready," Halliday said, "and we just kinda came out and didn't make things happen."

Kristoff Williams, perhaps trying too hard with his dad -- on leave from military duty in Afghanistan and on hand to see his son play -- did not help matters with two early drops. (See the bottom of this article for 2 great pics of Williams reuniting with his father, Dan Williams, before the game. The elder Williams is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army stationed in Kandahar.)

"We just came out, I don't know if ‘hesitant' is the right word," Halliday said. "I don't know if ‘nervous' is the right word. Plays were there to be made early in the game and we didn't make them."

Leach said Halliday had a point about the Cougars hesitating at times.

"I thought we played hard," Leach said. "Wanted to make too much happen. I thought we hesitated and in the end couldn't overcome our self-inflicted wounds."

The coach added, "I think we spend too much time focusing on our opponent than we do our job. Something good happens for our opponent, and I think we allow it to distract us from our job."

Arizona State's explosive offense, expertly run by junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, left the Cougars looking utterly confused at times on D. That was particularly true on running plays when Kelly kept the ball after faking a handoff to his running back.

"Way more difficult than it should have been," Leach muttered.

"It's pretty difficult (to defend)," defensive tackle Toni Pole said. "Hats off to them. They made great plays when they needed to. He's (Kelly is) a really shifty quarterback. He's really deceptive."

No doubt. But WSU players on the edge allowed their eyes, feet and focus to drift inside several times instead of staying at home and keeping contain on the ASU quarterback.

The Cougars also gave props to Arizona State's defense. The Sun Devils rank among the nation's best on offense and defense.

"Probably the best secondary in the (Pac-12) conference," Leach said.

"That's probably the best (pass) coverage team we've played," Halliday said. "We had a lot of trouble getting (receivers) off their ‘man' press coverage. In this offense, we've got to win against ‘man' coverage. And some of the times we did, I missed the throw. It's tough throwing when your feet aren't set (due to the pass rush), but I've got to find a way."

In his first game since setting a Pac-12 record with 577 passing yards at second-ranked Oregon (with a Football Bowl Subdivision record of 89 passes), Halliday went 29 for 54 for 300 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

"I do think this is one of his the best games he's played," Leach said.

The Cougars gained just 2 yards net rushing for the second consecutive game. After having eight running plays and four quarterback sacks at Oregon, the Cougars had just nine running plays and two sacks against Arizona State.

"They couldn't run the ball," ASU coach Todd Graham noted. "If you can't run the ball, it makes it tough, and then you get more exotic (on defense). Our guys are smart in our system. We are able to do a lot."

Arizona State started eight seniors on defense, compared to WSU's four. Experience is one reason why the Sun Devils are 6-2 (4-1 Pac-12) after Thursday's win made them bowl eligible. Inexperience is one reason why the Cougars are 4-5 (2-4 Pac-12) and must win two of their three remaining regular-season games to become bowl eligible.

"I'm not even going to think about bowl games," Bucannon said. "I'm thinking one game at a time."

"We need to focus on our job and the next play (instead of bowls)," Leach said. "It's too tempting for us to clutter our minds with a bunch of extra stuff, because all that matters is the next play and how you do your job and doing it collectively. If you're able to that and have the discipline to do that, you're a good team."

Rarely have the Cougars played like a good team in recent weeks. Halliday said it's not too late to turn things around.

"We've got three games left to be 7-5," he said. "Say everything you want to say about these last three (losses). When's the last time a team was 7-5 here? Let's look at it that way and go get three wins."

  • The Cougars return to action Nov. 16 at Arizona. The only remaining home game is Nov. 23 against Utah. The Apple Cup at Washington is set for Nov. 29.

  • The Cougars won't practice again until Tuesday, Nov. 5.

  • Bucannon, who leads the Pac-12 with 85 tackles, led all players Thursday with 12. Cooper and Justin Sagote were next on the Cougs with seven tackles each.

  • Bucannon also registered his fifth interception, tied for 11th in school history. "If I had zero tackles, and zero interceptions and we won the game, I'll take that any day," Bucannon said. On the WSU career charts, Bucannon ranks fourth with 355 tackles and tied for third with 14 interceptions, (Rick Reed, 1960s). Lamont Thompson is No. 1 in WSU and Pac-12 history with 24.

  • Leach said WSU's strength of schedule ranks in the "top three" in the nation.

  • Walk-on running back Jeremiah Laufasa recorded his seventh rushing touchdown. That's the most at WSU since Jerome Harrison racked up a school-record 16 in 2005.

  • Halliday moved within one of the school record for 300-yard passing games. Ryan Leaf and Alex Brink had 12.

  • WSU receiving leader Gabe Marks moved into a seventh-place tie in school history with 63 catches in a season but he had a costly turnover when he fumbled in the first quarter. WSU was down 14-0 and Marks' miscue gave the Sun Devils more great field position, which they quickly turned into a 21-0 lead.

  • Wide receiver River Cracraft, starting as a true freshman, led the Cougars with 78 receiving yards (on four catches). "River played great," Halliday said. "He's mature beyond his years. He never gets too high, never gets too low. He's just a reliable guy. He'll only get better as he gets older and stronger."

    REUNION: Cougar wide receiver Kristoff Williams, left, with father Dan Williams prior to the game against ASU.

    Kristoff gives his dad a hug before the game. Dan Williams is on military leave as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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