By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review
PULLMAN — Look, it isn’t as if Paul Wulff pulled a guy out of the stands at Martin Stadium in desperation and hustled him into a uniform to save the honor of ol’ State U.
That’s so three years ago, back when Wulff was taking over the football program at Washington State and holding quarterback auditions for the student body.
Funny how those details get misplaced.
Nevertheless, there was going to be an extemporaneous quality to Connor Halliday’s quarterbacking involvement Saturday night in the Cougars’ tent-revival upset of Arizona State.
“I didn’t want to go into a scenario where you start him in a game like this,” explained the Cougars’ offensive coordinator, Todd Sturdy. “We planned on (him playing) the third series — but I told him, ‘If Marshall comes out and scores five series in a row, you ain’t playing.’.”
And so Halliday threw for an 85-yard touchdown on his first pass, as if to say, “I ain’t coming out.”
Marshall, by the way, is Marshall Lobbestael, the loyal soldier who by now must be the all-time Wazzu leader at both supplanting quarterbacks and being supplanted.
The Lobster may start again Saturday against Utah — it’s Senior Day for WSU, and he’s a senior who deserves a curtain call. But it’s Halliday’s name on every Cougar’s lips today.
As in: Could you believe Halliday?
As in: Halliday threw for almost 500 yards!
As in: Halliday’s just a freshman!
As in: Do you think Jeff Tuel can hold off Halliday next year?
Oh, yes, and as in: Can you believe Wulff didn’t play Halliday before this?
In the upside down world of Cougar football, the fact that a redshirt freshman came in and strafed the Pac-12’s No. 4 pass defense for 494 yards and four touchdowns can mean only this: he should have been in there before. It can’t possibly mean that Halliday wasn’t ready a month ago, or that the coaching staff made the right call.
“Connor has had a good five weeks (of practice),” Sturdy said. “He struggled early for a while, but he’s kind of grown the last five weeks.”
And on Saturday night, he grew with each ball he threw — not easy to do when you hit your first one for 85 yards and six points.
“When he gets in the game,” Wulff said, “he plays.”
So did his teammates around him. Cougar receivers — particularly Marquess Wilson and Isiah Barton — had a spectacular game, and Halliday and his line managed to give each other just enough time. This allowed the staff to get bolder with their new weapon as the game wore on.
“The one thing about Connor,” said Sturdy, “is that he’s a tough kid and a competitor. He got hit, the second series I think, and comes over and he’s got a fat lip and blood coming out of his mouth, and it didn’t faze him. He just kept making plays.
“He kept telling me, ‘Sorry, coach, I keep missing those blitzes — I don’t see them.’ But that’s part of the growth process.”
The gunslinger fearlessness and let-it-ride mentality have been evident in Halliday since his high school days at Ferris, especially a sensational senior year when he took the Saxons to the state finals. His arm strength and touch have never been a question; prudence, occasionally, yes.
But sometimes, you simply need a thrower. As big as that first touchdown was, there was no more authoritative pass than the one on third-and-8 in the waning minutes that put the Cougars on the doorstep of the clinching touchdown.
“It wasn’t the ideal look — a one-man route into a cover-2 shell,” Sturdy said. “The only shot we had was a side-pocket throw where the ball had to be driven, and Connor had a great sense of anticipation to deliver it before the safety could get there.”
Halliday’s take: “One of the best catches I’ve ever seen.”
For all the Cougar come-throughs, it can’t be forgotten that the Sun Devils were virtual co-conspirators — a dropped pass in the end zone, a point-blank field goal missed and coach Dennis Erickson’s misbegotten decision to pass on another.
He may have flubbed another call, too.
“I went down there in June of my recruiting process and threw for coach Erickson, but they told me they had another guy they wanted to offer,” Halliday recalled. “When he decommitted, they ended up coming back to me, but I’m not going to go somewhere where I’m not the first option.
“That goes to show you, maybe Mr. Erickson made a mistake.”
“He’s got a great knack,” Wulff acknowledged. “But it’s one game. I’m not going to anoint him (an Andrew) Luck yet because that’s not my style. He’s got a lot of growing to do.
“But it looked comfortable out there, didn’t it?”
Given the electricity Halliday infused into the night, the stadium, the season and possibly even the Wulff regime, that would seem to be underselling it.