PULLMAN — The battle between Connor Halliday and Jeff Tuel to become Washington State’s starting quarterback features a familiar story line.
The narrative pitting a brash, inexperienced gunslinger (Halliday) against the team’s cerebral, veteran leader (Tuel) arrived Friday when the sophomore torched UNLV for 378 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-27 triumph on national television.
Just don’t ask coach Mike Leach for any indication who will start Saturday against Colorado, assuming Tuel is healthy enough to play.
“I’m not a guy who tells people the end of a movie if they haven’t seen it, so I’m not going to share it with you,” he said when asked who he sees as his first-string quarterback after Friday’s win. “If you want to see how it turns out, you’ve got to come see the movie.”
A quick glance at statistical returns shows Halliday has the advantage compared to the upperclassman. In one start and a limited second half appearance against Eastern Washington, the sophomore completed 55.4 percent of his passes for 454 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions. Factor in Marquess Wilson’s inexplicable drop against UNLV that negated a long touchdown and the late holding penalty against the Cougars that brought back another 50-plus yard scoring reception, and Halliday would be in early contention for all-conference honors.
“I thought he played well,” Leach said earlier this week in his typical rambling syntax. “Way ahead of schedule for a guy who’s only played a handful of games because he doesn’t have many snaps under his belt; thought he played really well when you consider that. I think he’s talented. As far as explosive, going down field, really good at that.”
Halliday is averaging 8.4 yards per attempt to Tuel’s 5.63. More importantly, he’s 2-1 in three career starts while Tuel has won just three games in three injury-plagued seasons in Pullman.
Given WSU’s five-year run of gridiron incompetence, Halliday’s .666 winning percentage in limited action is cause for booze-fueled riots to break out along Greek Row.
The six-foot, four-inch, 189-pound Ferris High School graduate captured a spot in WSU lore in 2011 when he came off the bench to throw for 494 yards and four touchdowns in a 37-27 upset win against Arizona State.
In 2012, he’s continued playing the same high-risk, high-reward style. Against UNLV, he threw an ill-advised interception late in the fourth quarter while leading by double digits. Late against EWU, he nearly beheaded WSU wide receiver Isiah Myers when he tried to squeeze a pass between a safety and corner.
Apparently surprised his quarterback would have the audacity to attempt a throw into such a tight space, Myers failed to get his hands up in time, allowing the ball to ricochet off his facemask out of bounds.
The pass, by the way, was perfect.
Halliday said Monday Leach never formally told him he’d be starting against UNLV, but it became clear on Tuesday it was his job when Tuel missed practice for the second consecutive day.
I dont know, well see what happens,” he said when asked if he considers himself the starter. Were not told much, either. Were kind of in the same boat. We just go along and try to have as good a week of practice as you can have to help the decision in your favor.
Halliday might not have reentered the spotlight this season had Tuel not gone down with a n apparent knee injury during the third quarter of WSU’s 24-20 win against EWU (Leach refuses to discuss injuries).
The setback capped a troubling rash of ill-fated mishaps for Tuel. The four-year starter injured his ankle his freshman year and missed the Apple Cup. After a solid sophomore campaign (2,800 yards and 18 touchdowns), Tuel missed nearly all of 2011 with a broken collarbone and something called acute compartment syndrome.
Now a senior trying to grasp the intricacies of Leach’s Air Raid Offense, Tuel no longer appears the right player to guide WSU football back to prominence. He struggled mightily in the Cougars’ 30-6 loss to BYU and looked hesitant while going 20-for-26 for 171 yards and two touchdowns against EWU.
The best game of Tuel’s career came when he went 10-for-15 for 157 yards and a touchdown while adding 18 rushes for 79 yards in a 31-14 upset victory against Oregon State in 2010.
He hasn’t won a start since.
The Cougars caught the Beavers napping on that rainy afternoon in Corvallis. The real takeaway, however, came from Tuel’s gutsy running performance. Then a sophomore, he dipped, ducked and juked his way for critical first downs for four quarters. WSU ran option reads to keep the Beavers off-balance, then finally hit on a deep ball to a wide-open Wilson to seal the victory.
Despite Tuel’s rushing potential, rarely will he get the opportunity to break off a huge gain on a designed running play in Leach’s system. Tuel said as much after the loss to BYU.
Such a restriction is like taking Indiana Jones’ whip and replacing it with a shoestring.
But Leach already knows that. After all, he’s a huge movie fan.