At 2-3 in his first five games, Mike Leach’s reconstruction of a WSU football program that won nine games the previous four seasons featured mental breakdowns, the mysterious disappearance of a starting offensive lineman and a bona fide quarterback controversy.
And he thought matters were messy at Texas Tech.
The early travails, however, do nothing to diminish the one staggering statistic from Leach’s resumé — 10 bowl games in 10 seasons.
There isn’t any chance this 2012 Cougars team could continue that streak, is there?
Even the most crimson-tainted booster would likely answer in the negative after the Cougars did their best Harry Heimlich impersonation against Colorado two weeks ago, surrendering a 17-point lead in the final seven minutes to the worst team in the Pac-12.
A promising first half against Oregon caused WSU to trend on Twitter Saturday at CenturyLink Field, but the momentary social media boom didn’t help the Cougars’ defense contain quarterback Marcus Mariota in the third quarter. It did, however, spike the confidence of a team ridiculed by Leach for displaying “basset hound faces” in the 30-6 season opening loss to BYU.
“We just competed with the No. 2 team in the nation (Oregon),” Connor Halliday said at Monday’s press conference. “We can compete and we can put up points on anybody in the nation. When this team plays with confidence, we’re a darn good group.”
Given Oregon State’s 118th-ranked pass defense, Halliday could prove prophetic should WSU beat the No. 14 Beavers, starting at 3 p.m. Saturday in Corvallis (Pac-12 Networks). An upset would jump-start a team adjusting to the notion of success while its quarterback perfects the intricacies of a new system.
After OSU, WSU plays three of its final six games at home against teams who have typically struggled in Pullman (Cal, UCLA and UW). Toss in a winnable road contest late in the year against a one-dimensional Utah team and the path to a 6-6 finish becomes clearer, but less likely then a “Paul Wulff Appreciation Day” at WSU’s next home game.
Halliday, meanwhile, said Monday he must scan through his progressions faster as the season moves along. The sophomore went 65-for-120 for 749 yards, for five touchdowns and two interceptions in losses to Colorado and Oregon. In the Air Raid Offense, quarterback play is magnified because of the gaudy number of pass attempts Leach demands of his signal callers.
Halliday said his biggest weakness is his tendency to become overconfident.
“Even if my first read doesn’t open, I’ve just kind of been able to throw a guy open,” he said. “That works out some of the time but there’s a better possibility of completing the ball to a guy who is for sure open, even if that is 10 yards shorter.”
Leach named Halliday the starter for the OSU game earlier this week after senior quarterback Jeff Tuel came off the bench to throw a touchdown in mop-up duty against the Ducks. Through five games, Leach’s Air Raid Offense is averaging a modest 25 points per game on 333 passing yards. The decision to start the Spokane native plops Leach’s remarkable bowl streak squarely in Halliday’s hands. It’s no wonder he wants his quarterback to be more like him.
“I always tell him the more plays that you have out there, that I could have done myself, the easier it is,” said Leach of the instruction he gives his quarterback.
“If I could have thrown that ball then it’s pretty high percentage and it’s pretty simple . . . you got a superior athlete and a guy who throws the ball all over the place for years . . . well. he doesn’t want to throw the ball that Coach Leach can throw. He wants to throw the ball that only he can throw.”
Toning down Halliday’s high-risk, high-reward style will likely determine if Leach extends his bowl streak, especially when one considers the early struggles of Mike Breske’s defense (surrendering 32.6 points, 472 yards per game).
The offense, meanwhile, has scored a touchdown on just 8-of-16 red zone appearances in 2012. That number should improve against OSU if Leach carries through with his plan to neutralize the Beavers’ defensive line, illegality be damned.
“Basically we’re going to have a bunch of people go to Corvallis sometime this week, take them out, make sure they stay out too late, then we Shanghai them and leave them in a foreign country,” he told a reporter. “There’s some flaws and bugs to that (plan), which we are working through right now as I speak.”