WSU NOTEBOOK: Crimson and Gray Game

SPOKANE -- Tyler Hilinski should have been getting ready for his high school prom. Instead, he had a date on Saturday with a couple open receivers, throwing a pair of touchdown passes in Washington State's spring game.

Hilinski, a true freshman from Upland, Calif., pictured above, took advantage of NCAA rules in graduating from high school early and enrolling at WSU in January. In so doing, he was able to take part in spring drills before the rest of the prep signees take part in graduation ceremonies.

A three-star prospect with a good feel for the Air Raid reminded more than a few of Connor Halliday on Saturday -- Hilinski from my chair looked good in the pocket and very good on the run.

Coach Mike Leach gave him a good review, pointing out that the youngster “expects good things to happen.”

THE CRIMSON AND GRAY FORMAT The Crimson and Gray format took away almost all special teams play – a fortuitous move for a squad suddenly scrambling to find a punter.

The Cougs did not punt, nor did they kick off. Field goals and extra points were executed without the defense being on the field.

THEY MAY HAVE SNUCK ONE OR two by me but I didn't see Cougar quarterbacks under center during the game. Leach made national news earlier this spring when WSU quarterbacks began to take some snaps under center - and saying the Cougs may be under center as much as 25 percent this coming season.

THERE WERE A NUMBER OF OLD COUGAR players at the game. Former quarterbacks Jason Gesser and Alex Brink joined play-by-play voice Bud Namek in the booth to help analyze the play of Luke Falk and Peyton Bender.

And both know a thing or two about throwing footballs on the Palouse. The pair are a combined 1,459 of 2,569, amassing 19,243 yards. That’s almost 11 miles through the air, one receiver at a time. Also at the game was CouGreat safety Deone Bucannon, now of the Arizona Cardinals.

TO NO ONE'S SURPRISE, LEACH said his defensive secondary remains his primary concern as spring drills draw to a close. His goal is to get that group as much experience as he can as quickly as he can.

The group, as a unit, played well Saturday. The Gray secondary had difficulty defending Dom Williams, but other Pac-12 defensive units have had that same problem.

Bender was the only quarterback to complete a long ball to an open receiver (Daniel Lilienthal), and that went for a touchdown. Bender tried to complete a pass to Gabe Marks down the middle of the field in the fourth quarter, but under threw the pass just a smidge and Charleston White lunged at the last to snare the ball for a clean interception.

HERCULES MATA'AFA started on the defensive line for the Crimson squad after starring in a season’s worth of Thursday Night Football last fall -- the Mike Leach way of getting his redshirts and freshmen game-like experience in weekly scrimmages.

Mata’afa has earned praise for his strength and explosiveness off the ball by Leach and Saturday he had a strong game. But he will have to go back to check out the post-game stat page to make sure he gets all the credit he so richly deserves.

Mata’ata fired off the ball, blew past a Gray defensive tackle and tapped Bender on the helmet to record a sack. But Bender stepped up in the pocket after the tap and threw a 16-yard completion. To keep the game flowing, the reception was allowed to stand. “I got the sack,” Mata’ata said. “I better get the sack!”

DOM WILLIAMS WAS LOW-KEY when it came to his own performance Saturday, saying, “I was just making plays. I just catch the ball; it’s what I do.” But he was quick to share praise with his fellow wideouts.

“I think as a group we did good,” he said. “Personally, I could have done better. I think we’re all making steps every day and getting better every day. We all learn from each other: I learn from Gabe (Marks), Gabe learns from me. ”

Asked how he felt about his progress toward his stated goal of being more than just a “big-play guy,” Williams said he felt he, too, was "making steps each day.”

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