Cougar Notebook: 'We want Bama'

PULLMAN – Mike Leach is no dummy, but he had to watch Washington State fans pour onto the Martin Stadium field for the second straight season to celebrate a thrilling Senior Day victory before he figured out the key to scheduling home games in Pullman.

"We just need to have Senior Night every night," Leach reasoned.

Don't get fans started about all those night games, Coach. Leach can be forgiven for losing track of time after Washington State and Utah combined for 86 points, 98 passes and 1,059 yards Saturday afternoon in a 4 hour, 18-minute slugfest won by the Cougars, 49-37.

The Pac-12 Conference victory makes the Cougars bowl eligible at 6-5. Seven wins guarantees a bowl game – WSU's first in 10 years – so the Cougars have even more reason than usual to want to repeat last year's Senior Day triumph over Washington when the cross-state rivals wrap up the regular season Friday at Husky Stadium (12:30 p.m., FOX).

"We came into the year, we never just say, ‘Just get six wins and after that we'll just relax,'" running back Marcus Mason said. "We're going to win this (Washington) game."

Leach said the selection of bowl teams involves "a lot of factors, and everyone pretends it's all scientific, and then at the end they do whatever the hell they want."

The combination of Leach's national profile and athletic director Bill Moos'countless connections around the country bodes well for the Cougars' chances of going to a bowl with a 6-6 record. It also doesn't hurt that 35 bowls involve 70 of the 123 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Senior offensive tackle John Fullington doesn't want to take any chances. Asked if he believes the Cougars are definitely going to a bowl, the senior out of North Mason High School said, "I don't know. Let's just guarantee it (with a win) next week, huh?"

Wide receiver Dom Williams, who scored the Cougars' first TD and then sealed the deal with a 71-yard catch and run for a TD late in the game, had a similar response when asked about WSU's bowl status.

"Who knows?" he said. "I'm worried about U-Dub."

WITH HIS LONG BLOND HAIR and 6-foot-5, 301-pound frame, Fullington is hard to miss in a crowd. However, even Fullington got lost in the sea of humanity that flooded the field to share the victory with their sweaty heroes.

"Everyone was really excited," center Elliott Bosch said. "They were thanking us, thanking the seniors.

"Cougar Nation's excited."

Fans posed for photos with players, hoisted them on their shoulders or simply exchanged hugs or handshakes. Perhaps 15 minutes after the game, players finally left the field after gathering with fans in the northwest corner of the field to sing the fight song as it was played by the band.

]"It was ecstatic," Williams said. "Our fans were happy. We were happy. It was wild."

Wild and crazy. That explains why one fan on the field was holding aloft a sign that read, "We want Bama." The sign, of course, referred to top-ranked and two-time defending national champion Alabama.

The crowd was loud and enthusiastic on a gorgeous but chilly afternoon. Only 23,112 turned out (the second smallest home crowd of the year), partly because many students were out of town because no classes are held next week, a WSU tradition on Thanksgiving week.

"It was a great atmosphere," said senior kicker Andrew Furney, who booted three field goals, including a 52 yarder to close the first half. "It was a pretty good turnout for having Thanksgiving break and everything, so we appreciate that."

WSU QUARTERBACK Connor Halliday passed for 488 yards and four touchdowns, and no interceptions, in a splendid performance. Halliday was quick to join his teammates and Leach in raving about the offensive line's performance.

"Give all the credit to the O-line," said Halliday. "We were able to run the ball (90 yards). Utah leads the nation in sacks (36), and we didn't give up one."

One year after the offensive line (and virtually everyone else on the Cougars) rendered a dreadful performance at Utah that caused Leach to openly question the character of some players, Leach termed the O-line's performance "really tremendous" against the Utes.

"They have as good a (defensive) front as there is in this league, and maybe the country," Leach said.

"He was proud of us," said Bosch. "That's good to hear from the big man."

Leach said WSU's offensive line has "probably" improved more in one year than any position group he's ever seen since he began coaching college football in 1987. The Cougars broke their year-old school and Pac-12 record of 624 pass attempts in a season Saturday, but WSU has given up just 22 quarterback sacks one year after yielding a school-record 57 to "lead" the FBS.

"We are playing well as a group," Bosch said. "We can always play better, and I think we haven't played our best game yet."

HALLIDAY HAS PLAYED WELL MOST of the season, and he accomplished a career first Saturday when he did not throw an interception for the first time in 17 career starts. He started the day with 19 interceptions this season, the most in the FBS.

"Things have started slowing down a little bit," he said. "I think I've done a good job the whole year going through my reads.

"I think I've had some bad luck on a couple of those interceptions. Off hands, wrong routes, things like that. Then I've made a couple poor decisions myself."

Halliday completed 39 of 62 passes. He tied Alex Brink for the most 400-yard passing games in WSU history (five); he broke the WSU career record of 12 300-yard passing games that he held with Brink and Ryan Leaf; he moved past the legendary Drew Bledsoe into fifth place in school history with 50 touchdown passes; and he moved into second place in WSU single-season passing yards, just 63 behind the 3,968 that Ryan Leaf recorded in 1997.

With just seven completions against Washington he'll own the Pac-12 record for single-season completions. He currently has 380.

Leach said Halliday "played really well. Very composed."

"He played amazing," Mason said.

Mason wasn't too shabby himself. He led the Cougars with eight catches (tying his career high) for 88 yards and a touchdown, and he ran the ball 10 times for a career-high 86 yards. Mason had a 42-yard reception and a 50-yard run, the latter on a play called at the line by Halliday.

"Their quarterback is very good," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "I think he's an NFL guy."

Halliday just missed on a number of passes that receivers dropped, had go off a hand or couldn't quite reach. He easily could have broken the Pac-12 record of 557 passing yards that he set Oct. 19 at Oregon.

"It would have been something to see," Halliday said.

WSU'S SENIOR CLASS HASN'T experienced a great deal of success, so it meant a great deal to the seniors to go out on top in their final home game.

"We went out like we wanted to go out," senior cornerback Damonte Horton said.

Horton did so with style, running back a first-quarter interception 22 yards for a touchdown to set school records with three interception returns for touchdowns in one season and four in a career. Barely a minute after Horton scored, senior safety Casey Locker scored his first college touchdown on a 39-yard return of his third career interception, and first this year.

NOTABLE:

  • The Cougars had not returned two interceptions for touchdowns in one game since Alex Hoffman-Ellis and Myron Beck pulled it off against Southern Methodist in 2009.

  • For the first time since 2006, the Cougars have six wins, four conference wins and two straight conference wins. The Cougars won two conference home games for the first time since 2007.

  • The 49 total points and 33 first-half points represent WSU's best showings in a conference game since the Cougars won 55-16 (with 38 points in the first half) at 10th-ranked Oregon in 2003.

  • WSU's 21 points in the first quarter was a team best in the opening period since putting up 23 against Idaho State in 2011.
  • Furney's three field goals moved him past John Traut into third place in WSU history with 45 field goals. Furney's fourth career 50-yard field goal leaves him alone in third place in school history after breaking a tie with Aaron Price.

  • Senior safety Deone Bucannon recorded six tackles, giving him 102 for the season. He's the first Cougar to put together back-to-back 100-tackle seasons since Billy Newman in 1999-2000. Bucannon came into the week as the active FBS leader with 366 career tackles (fourth in WSU history), and he was tied for fifth among active players with 14 career interceptions (tied for third in WSU history).

  • Halliday completed passes to 10 receivers. Ten or more WSU receivers have caught at least one pass in the past nine games (10 games total) this season.

  • Locker, who lost his starting job to Taylor Talilulu this year, made his first start of the season. Talilulu and SAM linebacker Cyrus Coen did not play after being injured last week at Arizona State. Sophomore Tana Pritchard replaced Coen and made his first college start.
  • WSU's 578 total yards was a season high. It also was a season high for a Utah (4-7, 1-7) opponent. "Their skill on offense absolutely throttled our skill on defense," Whittingham said after his team was eliminated from bowl consideration.

  • Leach (9-14 in two seasons) has matched the victory total that predecessor Paul Wulff (9-40 posted in four seasons. The Cougars have improved from 1-8 to 4-4 in Pac-12 action in Leach's second season. Wulff's teams were 4-32 in league play.

    COUG FANS BRING THE HEAT.


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