Cougs ride dynamic Air Raid to win

TO ASSERT THE Air Raid was run to precision would be an overstatement. After all, Washington State coach Mike Leach probably will review his team's 24-17 win Saturday at Arizona and feel the Cougars could have produced twice as many points. But there were a lot of elements to like from a 24-17 victory that put WSU on the cusp of reaching a bowl for the first time since 2003.

Coming off a stretch where the Cougars (5-5 overall, 3-4 Pac-12) played just once since Oct. 16, they seemed anything but rusty on offense as they quickly built a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. While WSU could not consistently translate long drives into points, which was a hallmark of Leach's successful teams at Texas Tech, junior quarterback Connor Halliday seemed as comfortable in the Air Raid as he has all season.

Sure, Halliday produced gaudy statistics against such teams as Idaho and California, but almost everyone has. Both teams only have won once this season. Arizona (6-4, 3-4) is different because the Wildcats, even when considering their weak schedule, have reached bowl eligibility. Entering the game, Arizona allowed an average of 384.3 yards per game, which ranks 53rd among Football Bowl Subdivision programs.

Behind Halliday, who completed 39 of 53 passes for 319 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, the Cougars produced 420 yards of total offense. And more importantly, they did not turn the ball over outside of Halliday's one interception during the first half.

"Give it all up to the offensive line," Halliday said during a postgame radio interview. "They played great."

That development cannot be understated. During WSU's Halloween loss against Arizona State, the Sun Devils were able to get pressure on Halladay with only three linemen rushing him. With their base 3-3-5 defense, the Wildcats tried to replicate that –- and were unsuccessful. That never was more apparent than during the game-winning drive when Halliday seemingly could have timed his 19-yard strike on the left sideline to sophomore running back Teondray Caldwell with an hourglass. It almost felt as if Halliday could have watched each grain of sand flow hit the bottom before throwing the ball.

"I actually freaked out a little bit because I had so much time," Halliday said with a laugh. "Teondray made a heck of a catch."

He was one of many. Both junior running back Marcus Mason and sophomore wide receiver Dom Williams caught a team-high seven passes in a diversified offense. They were among 11 receivers who caught passes from Halliday.

But unlike many games that highlighted WSU's three-game losing streak in October, the offense was not one-dimensional. Despite entering the game with the least amount of rushing yards among FBS schools, Halliday seemed happy to hand the ball off to Caldwell and junior Marcus Mason.

And the Wildcats were not ready for it.

The Cougars finished with 101 yards on 27 carries. Mason, who had the first score of the game on a 15-yard run, finished with a team-high 63 yards on 11 carries.

"Every time we run the ball they do exactly what they're supposed to do," said Mason, referring to the offensive line.

THE SAME COULD apply to the defense. After watching such explosive running backs as Oregon's Byron Marshall and ASU's Marion Grice dominate WSU's defense in recent weeks, it seemed reasonable to doubt the Cougars' ability to contain Arizona standout Ka'Deem Carey. But outside of Carey's 30-yard touchdown run that cut WSU's lead to 10-7 late in the first quarter, that is exactly what occurred. Carey finished with 132 yards on 26 carries.

"They're an explosive offense," said senior safety Deone Bucannon, who had 11 tackles. "We knew we had to be patient; no explosives. We knew they needed a touchdown."

Limiting big plays allowed the Cougars to stay in the game long enough to create one of their own. Trailing 14-10 entering the second half, WSU forced a three-and-out on the Wildcats' opening possession. Arizona punter Drew Riggleman then could not handle a poor snap and the fumble was recovered by sophomore defensive lineman Xavier Cooper at the Wildcats' 31-yard line. Halliday later converted that into a 17-14 lead when he found true freshman wide receiver River Cracraft for a 23-yard touchdown pass.

The Wildcats' special-teams issues continued as Jake Smith made just 1 of 3 attempts – a 25-yarder that tied the game, 17-all, with 6:36 minutes left in the third quarter. But WSU put them in that position by forcing Arizona out of the end zone during the second half.

At that point, it became a matter of which quarterback would seize the opportunity.

It was Halliday, who found junior wide receiver Isiah Myers for a 25-yard touchdown pass with 2:15 left.

"I almost got a flag for running onto the field," Williams said. "I was just so happy."

His defensive counterparts were guilty of the same. Quarterback B.J. Denker needed just four plays to drive the Wildcats from their own 25 to the Cougars' 31. Leach then called a timeout.

"We wanted to break their rhythm and momentum," he said. "Probably should have called time out during one of those drives in the first half."

Denker provided further drama on fourth-and-7 at WSU's 28 when he eluded multiple defenders for a 9-yard gain.

But Denker could not replicate that later on fourth-and-4 at the Cougars' 13 as time was running out. He lofted a pass to Samajie Grant in the right corner of the end zone that landed out of bounds.

Sophomore linebacker Darryl Monroe said it felt like the play was moving in slow motion.

"That ball was high and that receiver was pretty short," he said, adding that he was surprised Grant came close to hauling it in. "I just broke down (after the incompletion). I was so excited."

Count it as the latest streak-buster under Leach. First win in Tucson since 2004. First time WSU has won five games in a season and three conference road games in a year since 2007.

But the most significant number for the Cougars is seven. If they win next Saturday against Utah and Nov. 29 at Washington, they will achieve their most wins in a year since 2003. That 10-win season also marks the last time WSU played in a bowl.

"I don't even know the last time a WSU team won seven games," said Halliday, a redshirt junior. "This is my class of seniors. These are the guys I came in with and I love them more than anything."


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