By Nicholas K. Geranios Associated Press
SPOKANE — Even by the standards of Washington State’s storied quarterback history, Connor Halliday is having a special season.
The junior is just 64 yards from surpassing Ryan Leaf’s team record of 3,968 yards passing in a season. That’s part of a general assault on the record books under coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense.
On Friday, Halliday will play in his first Apple Cup against archrival Washington. A victory would almost certainly guarantee that Washington State (6-5, 4-4 Pac-12) will play in its first bowl game since 2003.
Halliday missed the 2011 Apple Cup with a lacerated liver, and the 2012 game with a concussion.
The Spokane native is known for an abundance of self-confidence, and he’s been backing it up this season.
Through the first 11 games, Halliday has completed 380 of 597 passes, 63.7 percent, for 3,905 yards, with 26 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
To put those numbers in context, the 597 pass attempts are a Pac-12 record. The 380 completions are just seven shy of the Pac-12 record. The 26 touchdowns are tied for third in WSU single-season history, and are more than Drew Bledsoe ever threw in a season.
“Their quarterback is very good,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said after Halliday torched the Utes for 488 yards and four touchdowns on Saturday. “I think he’s an NFL guy personally.”
The 6-foot-4 Halliday has been criticized for his gunslinger mentality, specifically for throwing too many interceptions, especially because many were thrown into tight coverage.
But in the past three games he’s thrown eight touchdown passes with just two picks.
It’s clear that Halliday is improving as the season goes on.
“Things have slowed down a little bit,” he said of his field vision.
Utah leads the nation in sacks, but the Utes never got to Halliday on Saturday.
Leach said that was a key to the game.
“One thing I thought was really tremendous was between the offensive line and (Halliday),” Leach said. “He didn’t get sacked. I thought that was really impressive. We played together better and got more explosive.”
Halliday’s recent turnaround began after a home loss to Arizona State in which he threw for 557 yards but was intercepted four times. That left the Cougars with a 4-5 record and in danger of staying home for the holidays. It was their fourth loss in five games.
Rather than folding, Halliday resolved that the Cougars would win their final three regular-season games.
“If we win three games, we can do something here that hasn’t been done in 10 years,” he said.
Leach said Halliday has become more composed in recent games.
“He’s done a great job of leading the offensive unit,” Leach said. “He’s a lot steadier and more consistent than he was at the beginning of the season.”
One reason Halliday was able to stay focused was that he has overcome plenty of adversity at WSU.
“We’ve kind of been through the wringer,” Halliday said. “We’ve been through a coaching change. We’ve been through two-win seasons.”
The hiring last year of Leach, who enjoyed a decade of success at Texas Tech, signaled a change.
The Cougars went just 3-9 last year, as the team struggled to adapt to the Air Raid. Halliday split playing time with senior Jeff Tuel, and threw for 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
With Tuel gone to the NFL, Halliday took control this year.
The Cougars jumped to a 3-1 record, upsetting USC and beating Southern Utah and Idaho. Then came the mid-season slump, when they were blown out by Stanford, Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State as the offense sputtered.
“When we struggled in the middle of the year, it was not all 11 (players) playing at once,” Halliday said. “We were dropping a ball. We were missing a throw. I’m calling a bad run check. The offensive line is missing blocks.”
Now the focus is on getting to a bowl game.
Halliday is acutely aware that while six wins makes a team bowl eligible, it does not guarantee a bowl game, especially in a year when the Pac-12 has more teams eligible than it does bowl commitments. The Cougars need to beat Washington on Friday, Halliday said.
“We need seven wins,” Halliday said. “Seven will guarantee it. Six only gives you a chance.”
He wants more than a chance.
“It would be terrible to put in all that work, build this program up from where it was, and leave it up to old guys making decisions,” he said.