John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
It’s not often that a team attempts more than three times the passes than their opponent. Last Saturday night on the plains in Auburn, Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars did just that.
Redshirt-junior quarterback Connor Halliday threw the ball an astounding 65 times for the Cougs, completing 54 percent of his passes on the way to what wound up being a 31-24 loss to the Auburn Tigers. For comparison’s sake, 32 FBS teams had fewer than 65 total plays in Week 1, and the high-flying Rich Rod offense at Arizona only had 47.
Halliday began his career at Washington State in 2011 as a redshirt freshman in lieu of an injured Jeff Tuel, while displacing Tuel as the starter last year, in Leach’s first season in Pullman.
While the air raid offense is designed to limit quarterback mistakes, while using an inside-out passing game that widens defenses to open up receivers underneath in low-traffic areas, Halliday struggled in the pocket as a sophomore.
Among Pac-12 quarterbacks in 2012, only Colorado’s Jordan Webb had a worse passer rating, and his 1 to 22.4 interceptions to pass attempts ratio was the worst in the conference, and far behind Maricus Mariota’s mark of 56 attempts per interception.
In year two under Leach however, a lot of the success will rest on Halliday’s shoulders, as the Cougars lose star receiver Marquess Wilson and feel the pressure of improving a passing attack that was 98th in efficiency a year ago, while housing the current starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills.
Halliday turned the ball over twice in the first quarter against Auburn, but followed it up with two-straight touchdown drives to keep the Cougars in what was a wild second quarter. He finished Week 1 with 344 yards and a touchdown, while getting sacked twice. All things considered and passer rating aside, it wasn’t a terrible day for Halliday in one of the SEC’s most hostile environments.
At receiver, Washington State’s Gabe Marks is the featured receiver at flanker, and there’s a slew of talent both inside and outside, while lining up with two slot receivers in the base four-receiver air raid formation.
Unlike a vertical passing attack that emphasizes dynamic receivers on the perimeter and big, physical tight ends clogging up the middle of the field, Leach’s system works to spread defenses thin and allow the quarterback to pick his spots in the short and intermediate passing game.
The H receiver serves as a receiver/running back hybrid of sorts, in the form of a slot receiver with the goal of emphasizing yards after the catch in a way of augmenting the running game. It’s what made guys like Wes Welker and Danny Amendola key cogs in the Texas Tech offense under Leach, in roles that were different than that of Michael Crabtree, who played the role of Marks.
Not only will WSU’s short range passing game provide quick throws for Halliday, he’ll have to be nimble and calm in the pocket, as he could be under duress given the variance of the lines in front of him.
While USC’s defensive line leads the nation in sacks after Week 1, the Cougars have just one offensive lineman –senior center Elliot Bosch– that started in last November’s Apple Cup win over Washington.
Though, replacing a line that was dead last in the nation in protecting the quarterback –WSU gave up a whopping 57 sacks last year– might not be the worst thing in the world. Three seniors start at center and the right side of the line, with two sophomores on the left, who’ll have the task of keeping Devon Kennard at bay.
As for the running game, sophomore Teondray Caldwell leads the way for the Cougs, coming off a freshman season that saw him rush for 269 yards on 56 attempts. Caldwell led the Cougars in yards and carries against Auburn, and though his use was limited along with Marcus Mason, the running game was very effective.
Caldwell and Mason combined to average 7.4 yards per carry, and they’ll need to get in a rhythm early on Saturday if they’re going to keep the Trojans’ front seven honest and slow down the pass rush.
The Cougars will square up with the Trojans on Saturday night in the Coliseum, for USC’s home opener. USC is 92-18-7 in home openers and haven’t lost since faltering in 1997 to Florida State. Oddly enough, they opened up 0-2 that season, losing in the Coliseum in Week 2 to…you guessed it, Washington State.
Projected Starters:XWR Isiah Myers #88YWR River Carcraft #84LT Gunnar Eklund #63LG Joe Dahl #56C Elliot Bosch #60RG John Fullington #77RT Rico Forbes #76HWR Brett Bartolone #19ZWR Gabe Marks #84QB Connor Halliday #12RB Teondray Caldwell #34