Cougars follow blueprint to bowl eligibility

WASHINGTON STATE defensive coordinator Mike Breske discussed "the plan" just a few months after coach Mike Leach was hired. Breske said he would implement an aggressive defensive scheme designed to create turnovers and give Leach's high-powered Air Raid offense the ball as much as possible. And that concept was well executed during the Cougars' 49-37 win Saturday against Utah at Martin Stadium.

The plan worked even better than designed as WSU (6-5 overall, 4-4 Pac-12) became bowl eligible for the first time since 2006. That is because the Cougars did not need to give the ball back — they simply settled for scoring their own touchdowns.

After scoring on its first possession when junior quarterback Connor Halliday found sophomore wide receiver Dom Williams for a 5-yard touchdown pass, WSU appeared poised to blow out the Utes (4-7, 1-7) when Damante Horton and Casey Locker returned a pair of Adam Schulz passes 22 and 39 yards, respectively, for touchdowns on consecutive drives.

But that would have been too easy.

Similar to the Cougars, Utah was fighting to remain in the chase for a bowl. That is where another characteristic of an aggressive defense showed up — the potential to surrender the big play.

After the Utes finished a 12-play drive with a 14-yard touchdown run by Kelvin York, Schulz opened the ensuing drive with a 47-yard completion to Dres Anderson down to WSU's 16-yard line. Three plays later, York scored on a 3-yard run.

Suddenly the fears of another November swoon returned. Entering this month, the Cougars had a cumulative 24-54 record since former coach Mike Price's first season in 1989.

But on Senior Day, this group of players was not content with becoming another statistic. They want to leave a legacy.

"Senior Day is always kind of special," Halliday said during a postgame radio interview. "But with everything we've been through as a class, it means a little bit more than another program."

WSU NOW IS persevering through those challenges. Last year, no offensive line allowed more than the 57 sacks surrendered by the Cougars. WSU never has built a star-studded offensive line through four- or five-star recruits. That has not occurred at any position, for that matter. But having to rely on a trio of former walk-ons — center Elliott Bosch, left guard Joe Dahl and left tackle Gunnar Eklund — is unusual for the Cougars.

The offensive line appeared overwhelmed at times early in the season as Halliday was hit repeatedly. It seemed reasonable to be concerned as Utah entered the game with a Football Bowl Subdivision-best 36 sacks. Then the Utes left the Palouse with none.

"It just shows we've come a long ways," Bosch said. "We took a lot of pride in keeping him clean and Connor did a great job getting rid of the ball quickly."

Halliday entered November with an FBS-worst 18 interceptions. He had one during WSU's 24-17 win Nov. 16 at Arizona and none against the Utes. That protection enabled Halliday and his counterparts to respond to every Utah threat during the second half.

"When they're blitzing like that it leaves holes," Halliday said. "I lick my chops when I get a defense like this."

Halliday, who completed 39 of 62 passes for 488 yards and four touchdowns, did just that. With a 43-30 lead early in the fourth quarter and first-and-10 at the Utah 37, WSU appeared set effectively to end any comeback hopes for the Utes. But sophomore Gabe Marks fumbled a short pass, and Schulz needed just one play to find tight end Jake Murphy for a 64-yard touchdown.

After both teams traded punts, Halliday responded with his own explosive play. He found junior Dom Williams, who had 154 yards on five receptions, for a 71-yard touchdown with 4:42 minutes left as the Cougars snapped a two-game losing streak in the series. It was their first win against Utah since 2000.

"I was proud of our players with how they played," Leach said. "I feel like they've improved each week."

Now it will be interesting to see how far WSU can carry its momentum. Three years ago, a reporter asked then-coach Paul Wulff entering the Apple Cup if it was quarterback Jake Locker's "destiny" to end an eight-year bowl drought. The Huskies accomplished that through narrow wins at California and against the Cougars during the final month of the season.

WSU's story is more about a senior class that could propel the program from one that suffered double-digit losses as freshmen to as many as eight wins as seniors. Of course, a setback during Friday afternoon's Apple Cup in Seattle could leave the Cougars outside of the postseason.

That is why Bosch is not focused beyond the rivalry game.

"That's the big one," he said. "We're bowl eligible, but we've got to focus on next week because nothing is guaranteed at this point."

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