LOS ANGELES – Say this for Connor Halliday: He is never boring.
Halliday tends to go for broke, whether he’s tossing touchdown bombs or verbal bombs. Inevitably, some of his passes are intercepted. No doubt cringing Washington State officials wish some of his comments were intercepted before they go public.
Halliday is quite the entertainer, so it seems only fitting that he next takes the stage near the bright lights of Hollywood. One week after Halliday led the Cougars to the edge of an upset win at Auburn – only to see him make just enough critical errors to assure defeat before he trashed the opposing (read: winning) quarterback – Halliday and the Cougars will attempt to bludgeon the ghosts of college football past Saturday night against 25th-ranked USC (7:30, Fox Sports 1).
Saturday, after his third and final interception landed in enemy hands in the end zone late in the game, Halliday calmly informed the world that the Tigers “ran the ball real, real, real well. If they could find a quarterback, they’d be a top-five team in the nation. They just don’t have anyone who can throw it.”
This week, a kinder, gentler Halliday made WSU history by expressing sympathy for the perennially powerful Trojans of USC.
“That’s a tough situation; I feel for them down there,” Halliday said.
Mind you, Halliday was referring only to USC’s two-headed quarterback operation. No doubt Lane Kiffin’s inability to settle on a No. 1 quarterback revives haunting memories for Halliday of last year, when he complained about playing “musical chairs” with Jeff Tuel for the starting quarterback job.
It is now Tuel time in the NFL, so Halliday – the only non-freshman quarterback on the Cougars – has been entrusted with Mike Leach’s pass-til-ya-drop offense. Halliday, confident bordering on cocky, can’t wait to strug his stuff Saturday night on national television before a live audience of perhaps 90,000 at historic Memorial Coliseum.
“As long as I make good decisions, we’re going to move the ball,” Halliday said. “We had almost 500 yards in total offense (at Auburn), even with three interceptions.
“If I could just limit those mistakes, we’re going to be a tough team to stop.”
Halliday isn’t the only Cougar talking tough this week. The Trojans, still serving NCAA jail time for past sins involving Reggie Bush and others, are no longer all-powerful.
Scholarship reductions have reduced depth, and injuries suffered in a season-opening win at Hawaii could expose an inexperienced secondary.
“I hope USC fans think they’re going to see some WSU team as in the past,” Cougars linebacker Darryl Monroe said. “They’re going to be in for a big surprise.”
It might qualify as a bigger surprise if Monroe and Co. can shut down USC’s running game. Even with 2012 team rushing leader Silas Redd (a Penn State transfer) expected to miss a second game with a knee injury, the Trojans never seem to have a shortage of talented running backs.
“I expect them to TRY and run the ball,” Monroe said defiantly.
Auburn, a run-oriented team like USC, piled up 297 yards on the ground against Washington State. A 75-yard touchdown run was particularly heinous, topped on the ugly chart only by a 100-yard kickoff return for another score.
Overall, however, the Cougars played one of their strongest games in recent memory. Halliday has a much better grasp of the multitude of safety valves built into Leach’s passing attack, though the strong-armed junior from Spokane sounds eager to aim more deep balls at his talented receivers than Auburn’s defense allowed.
“I’ve never played against safeties that were that deep,” Halliday moaned.
Leach gave Halliday a passing grade for the season opener, but the teacher expects his star pupil to improve on the Auburn performance.
“I thought it was good,” Leach said, “other than you can’t let the other team touch the ball. Last year, he was really explosive but reckless. He’s still explosive. Does a better job running the offense.
“But we still need to iron out some things where he tries to make too much happen.”
Halliday’s willingness to throw short passes and call running plays at Auburn (Leach prefers for the quarterback to call for runs, since the player can see defenses better than Leach on the sideline) helped Washington State’s much-maligned offensive line provide Halliday with ample protection most of the game. On Saturday, the Cougars must deal with preseason first-team All-America defensive end Leonard Williams.
“They’re going to probably blitz us a little more than we saw last week,” WSU center Elliott Bosch said.
The Cougars just hope they don’t get blitzed by Marqise Lee when the Trojans have the ball. The first-team All-America wide receiver caught more balls (118) for more yards (1,721) than anyone in the long, pass-happy history of the Pac-12, by whatever name the conference used in a particular year.
Lee is also a dynamic kick returner. He’s expected to go high in next year’s NFL draft – possibly after winning the Heisman Trophy. No wonder he reportedly took out a $10 million insurance policy in case he suffers a career-altering injury this season.
WSU senior cornerbacks Anthony Carpenter (who also plays safety) and Nolan Washington missed practice all week, apparently due to injuries suffered against Auburn. The Cougars, operating under strict orders from Leach, virtually never acknowledge injuries.
Reporter: Uh, Mike, we noticed your quarterback’s arm was severed and fed to wolves in the second quarter tonight. Any comment?
Leach: Just a cut. Next question.
Regardless, true freshman cornerback Daquawn (“Cheetah”) Brown is expected to start or at least play regularly against USC. Brown starred at nearby Dorsey High School, where his constant yapping no doubt could be heard throughout the USC campus. Brown may be lacking in experience, but he is definitely not lacking in confidence.
“I expect him to put on a show for you guys,” a beaming Monroe informed the media. “I expect some frustration on Lee’s part, because (Brown is) going to be in his face the whole game, and he’s not going to stop, so I feel bad for that guy (Lee).”
Oh boy. One presumes Monroe’s comment made its way onto a bulletin board in the Trojans’ locker room. It may be seen as a sign of the Cougars’ growing confidence, or it may be perceived as the type of overboard comment that WSU players have rather routinely issued since last experiencing a winning season (or going to a bowl game) in 2003.
“Around here,” Halliday said, “there’s been a lot of talk (in past years) about post-season bowl games and what we’re going to do at the end of the year, and frankly, none of it’s gotten done.
“It pisses me off that people talk about that and fall short of it.”
Wow. Who woulda thunk it? Connor Halliday, the voice of reason. Perhaps the only bigger upset would be a rare road win for the Cougars at USC.