Monday Morning Quarterbacking with Alex Brink

CONTAIN THE quarterback. That's the key to Washington State's defense holding its own against the Washington offense on Friday in the 106th showdown between the schools. Wait a moment, you may be saying, stopping the run is going to be key. I could easily have said that, but I'm fairly certain Bishop Sankey is going to get his yards.

Instead, the Cougar must adopt a game plan much like the one they deployed against Arizona, where they made the opposing offense one dimensional. The Cougs must force the quarterback, whether it is Keith Price or Cyler Miles, to beat them. Sankey will produce, period. But contain the QB, which by definition means you also contain Austin Seferain-Jenkins & Co., and you have a chance to dictate the tempo of the game.

There are two other keys to a Cougar victory:

  • First, the Cougars have to win the turnover battle. This will take a great effort by the defense but more important, the offense must stay disciplined. The past few weeks Connor Halliday has been incredibly efficient. The way he has protected the football is the main reason WSU has come away with wins the last two games.

  • And second, Washington State needs to start facts. WSU has played great on the road this year but Husky Stadium is going to present a different challenge. If the Cougs can put a touchdown up in their first two drives it will go a long way in quieting the crowd.

    OK, LET'S NOW TAKE A LOOK at what we learned about the Cougars in their win over Utah last Saturday.

    For the second week in a row, Washington State did an excellent job playing a full four quarters of football. The Cougs responded to adversity and made big plays at key points in the game. Connor Halliday's growth and maturity showed through a number of times. Utah really settled down after the first quarter and turned an early blowout into a tight game. Halliday maintained his poise, allowing the Washington State offense to answer five different times when it appeared the Utes would swing momentum their way. Here's how those five instances broke down ...

    1. 3rd and 7, 12:20 left in the 2nd Quarter:
    Utah had just scored to cut the WSU lead to 21-14. The Cougs had lost all the early momentum from the Damante Horton and Casey Locker interceptions returned for touchdowns. On third down from his own 43-yard-line, Halliday must scramble because the Utah coverage blankets the WSU wide receivers. Instead of forcing a throw or taking a sack, Connor buys time and hits Marcus Mason, who takes it down to the Utah 13. The Cougs kick a field goal to go up 24-14.

    2. 2nd and 10, 8:40 left in the 2nd Quarter:
    On the very next WSU drive, Halliday hits Mason again, on a 9-yard pass, to put WSU up 30-14. As good a play as it was, the key to it came on 2nd down just before that throw. Utah tried to take away Washington State's quick passing game by bringing the safeties down to double cover the Cougar slot receivers. Connor did an excellent job recognizing the wide-open deep middle of the field and threw a perfect touch pass to Kristoff Williams. The most impressive part about that play was Halliday's anticipation, throwing the ball well before Williams separated from the defender.

    3. 3rd and 10, 10:30 left in the 3rd Quarter: Utah had kicked a field goal, making the score 33-23 Washington State. On a third and long play, Connor again demonstrated the growth in his game. Utah dropped into cover 2 and took away Halliday's initial look, a vertical to the wide side of the field. Instead of forcing the throw, he calmly worked his eyes back to the middle of the field where he hit River Cracraft on a dig. If Halliday hesitates at all, the linebacker would have recovered and broke the pass up. Instead, it is a huge third-down conversion that leads to another big field goal.

    4. 1st and Goal, 5:42 left in the 3rd Quarter:
    Utah had cut the lead to 36-30 when the Cougs answered again. The big play on the drive was a 50-yard Marcus Mason run to flip the field and get WSU into the red zone. Yet I was really impressed with the touchdown itself, an eight-yard toss from Halliday to Vince Mayle. On the play we got to see how the Air Raid offense can work when the quarterback recognizes coverage pre snap. On first down, Utah played press man while also showing blitz up the middle. Halliday knew he culd get a matchup he liked and changed the play to a simple slant/flat combination. The inside receiver runs a flat route to pull his defender away while Mayle is wide open running a slant behind him. The result? TD Cougs.

    5. 3rd and 7, 4:44 left in the 4th Quarter:
    The Utes had just scored late in the fourth quarter to close within 43-37. In a tough third-down situation on their own 29, Connor Halliday and Dom Williams stepped up to make one of the biggest plays of the year. Utah chose to play a version of 3-deep zone coverage called 3 Cloud. The field safety rolls over the top of the corner creating the cloud while the boundary safety rolls to the middle. The boundary corner opens his hips and runs to the deep third of the field. This allows Williams to get a clean release running a backside skinny post. Halliday recognized the coverage, held the safety in the middle just long enough to let Williams catch and split the defenders for the clinching, 71-yard touchdown pass.

    THE COUGAR DEFENSE SET THE TONE early against Utah with those two big pick sixes, but had a hard time stopping the big play as the game progressed. The offense consistently responded to keep the Cougars in control of the game. Halliday built on a solid performance the week before, at Arizona, and showed great improvement again. He is staying patient, playing within the offense and striking for big plays when the defense presents the opportunity.

    WSU has put itself in a great situation, sitting at six wins going into Friday's Apple Cup. As with the last two weeks, they must put together a complete 60 minutes at Husky Stadium to come away with win No. 7 and a guaranteed bowl berth.

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Brink was the starting quarterback at Washington State from 2004-2007, throwing for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in school history -- and the third-most yards in Pac-10 history. He was picked second-team all-Pac-10 twice and honorable mention once. Drafted in the seventh round by the Houston Texans in 2008, he spent a season on their practice squad before playing three years in the Canadian Football League with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and then this season with Montreal. He also is the head quarterbacks coach for the Barton Football Academy based in Portland. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10.

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