By Christian Caple The News Tribune
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — The poster on Connor Halliday’s bedroom wall, he swears, should not be interpreted as a motto applied whenever the Washington State quarterback surveys a defense, particularly with four receivers lined up in coach Mike Leach’s pass-centric scheme.
It began a couple years ago as a joke among WSU fans, a graphic that circulated on the fan site CougCenter.com, then on Twitter, and drew the admiration of those who believed Halliday to be the Cougars’ ticket to a winning record. He thought it was pretty funny, too. And so his mom turned it into a poster.
Emblazoned with an outline of Halliday’s likeness, it reads: “(Expletive). Go deep.” You can fill in the blanks.
“The poster’s cool, and I think I had it on my Twitter page, the one that got taken down before with Leach, and so the fact that I had it up, everybody thought that ‘oh, Connor Halliday is in love with going deep,’” Halliday said Wednesday afternoon at Paramount Studios, site of this year’s Pac-12 media days. “I just like the poster. The poster is real cool. I wasn’t trying to take that ‘go deep’ mindset into every play.”
Regardless, a reputation was born: Connor Halliday, gunslinger. Viewers of WSU game broadcasts who take a drink every time that word is mentioned likely won’t remain conscious after halftime.
And it’s not as if his performance hasn’t reflected at least a desire to make big plays. His first extensive playing time came as a redshirt freshman in 2011, when he completed 27 of 36 passes for a then-Pac-10 freshman record 494 yards, four touchdowns and, notably, zero interceptions in a surprising victory over Arizona State, dropping deep throws perfectly into the hands of receivers and leaving fans clamoring for more.
The next season, Leach’s first at WSU, provided far fewer highlights. Halliday split time with senior Jeff Tuel, neither player seizing the starting job, and wound up completing just 52.2 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Progress was made in 2013, when Halliday helped lead WSU to its first bowl appearance since 2003 (the Cougars were picked by media to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North this year, with Washington picked third), threw an astonishing 714 passes, tallying 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns … to go along with 22 interceptions.
That’s a number he says is inflated due to his number of pass attempts (true), but one he concedes he needs to trim. Part of his high-risk, high-reward repertoire was born from a youth and prep career that often yielded positive results when making the tougher throw.
“I was never told, ‘all right, this guy is running a fade. If he’s not wide open, don’t throw it to him,’” Halliday said. “I could always throw things way better than anybody and I always made throws that other people didn’t make, so I just did it. I was never told ‘if that’s not wide open, just take it to the 5-yard route.’”
But the affable Halliday, who entertained the media here on Wednesday with his typically brutal honesty and thoughtful insight, says he knows what he has to do to improve his ball control.
In two words: composure and progression. And, maybe more importantly, stop “playing mad,” applying the advice given to him by All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning earlier this summer while Halliday helped as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy.
Manning tries to “get back to zero” before every series, emphasizing a short memory and even-keeled demeanor.
That’s the goal, Halliday said, as well as “not trying to force the ball downfield because I feel like we need to score 14 points right now.”
“The biggest deal is limiting (interceptions) to 1-2 times a game. Not having the four picks against Oregon or the three picks against Auburn,” Halliday said, referencing two of his more frustrating games in 2013. “Limit it to one or two and bounce back right afterward. Don’t let it frustrate me for the rest of the game or the rest of the drive.”
And the progression. He tells it this way: if the first read is a post, and the receiver is covered, look for the second read. If that’s an out-route, and the linebacker is on it? Don’t throw it, even if it’s a throw he can make nine out of 10 times.
“Well, the 10th time, I don’t get it high enough, the linebacker picks it off, you know what I mean? When I’ve got that drag route right in front of me that I’m going to get a completion on,” he said. “That’s been my problem coming from when I was young up to now, is seeing a throw I make eight out of 10 times, but two out of 10 times it’s going to be a pick.”
His numbers last season seem to point toward another big statistical year in 2014 as a fifth-year senior. Leach, for one, has high expectations, particularly with a deep, experienced group of receivers returning.
Citing Halliday’s 2013 stats, Leach concludes that “clearly he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the entire nation. Like the debates and media faces, you might be rooting for your guy, and I don’t care what you think: he’s better than your guy is.”
And with the offseason transfers of backup quarterbacks Austin Apodaca and Tyler Bruggman — leaving WSU with walk-on Luke Falk and incoming freshman Peyton Bender behind Halliday — the pressure might be even greater for Halliday to prove himself among the Pac-12’s best passers in a season when that will be considered particularly lofty praise.
To do that, he might be best-served channeling the attitude he applies to the golf course — out there, he’s never as mad at himself as he can be on the football field — where he likes to spend his infrequent down time during the summer.
Halliday said he spent a week in June playing with his grandfather at Hayden Lake Country Club, just north of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and about 45 minutes east of his hometown of Spokane.
At first, he “struggled,” carding scores in the mid-80s, perfectly fine for most anyone, but not great for a player of his caliber. A golf pro and family friend made a few quick tweaks, and presto – his swing returned, and he eventually shot a 68.
“I’m doing a better job of taking my attitude in golf into football, because obviously you’re going to have your lash-outs every once in a while. That’s just the kind of guy I am,” he said. “But to be able to end those quicker and to be able to get back to zero, even-keeled, all those things I was saying, are huge.
“Because first of all if you’re throwing the football mad, it’s going to be high and hard. There’s no way around that. Second of all, calling plays mad isn’t going to work because you’re going to try to call everything downfield. And then third of all, if something goes wrong, you’re going to lash out at somebody. It doesn’t work at all. And I did better toward the end of the year, but it got even better in the spring and hopefully, I’ll keep taking steps in that.”