There are two other keys to a Cougar victory:
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.