The Washington State Cougars have started the season 1-1 following close, physical games with the Auburn Tigers and USC Trojans. You could argue that the team should be 2-0 after numerous chances to rally past Auburn late in their 31-24 loss to open the season. Despite their tough-minded play to start the season, quarterback Connor Halliday has been a major weakness on offense. Despite that, Mike Leach is committed to the junior gunslinger for better or worse.
There were plenty of expectations about the development of Halliday as he became the undisputed No. 1 quarterback this fall, but so far it has been more of the same from him. He is completing just 59.2 percent of his passes for 559 yards despite averaging 51.5 passes per game, averaging a career-low 5.43 yards per attempt with one touchdown pass and five interceptions. He’s making more poor choices with the ball than ever, it seems, forcing it into coverage with inaccurate or late passes.
Throughout his career, he’s thrown countless dangerous passes just as he has this year, but in the past they came with some big plays mixed in. During his freshman season, he threw 103 passes (the same number he has so far this year in two games) with nine fewer completions than he has this season, but gained 960 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. He was attacking down the field and making some plays. The hope was that he would still be able to do that in Leach’s system while cutting down on the bad decisions.
So far, though, the poor decision making only seems to have gotten worse. Any aggressiveness that Halliday has shown has been into excellent coverage so far this season and his poor decision in the red zone was a major contributor to WSU’s rally against Auburn coming up short. Despite all of that and having Austin Apodaca, who pushed Halliday during spring and fall camp, and highly touted true freshman Tyler Bruggman waiting in the wings, Leach is sticking with Halliday.
When asked by reporters following practice on Tuesday about Apodaca getting some playing time, Leach responded that he would like to get the backup quarterback into a game “as soon as possible,” but that the Cougars would have to have a game well in hand before it happened. That means Leach has relegated Apodaca strictly to garbage time and isn’t considering putting him in the lineup to see if he can take command this offense any more efficiently than Halliday.
Perhaps that’s a good thing. In 2012, Leach switched back and forth between Halliday and Jeff Tuel and it created nothing but chaos on offense. By sticking with one guy, he’s allowing Halliday to work through his issues without the fear of getting yanked if he makes a mistake (of which he has made many this season). Leach going all-in on Halliday as his starter allows the offense to rally around one guy, rather than standing around waiting to see who will get thrown in from week to week.
But how long should Halliday’s leash be? If he keeps playing as recklessly as he has been without the benefit of the big plays that put points up on the board, will WSU ever have a game truly “in-hand” enough to empty the bench during garbage time? If Halliday can’t settle in and stop throwing bad interceptions, he’ll continue to undercut any positive momentum the Cougars create this season. Can he get it turned around or will he be an anchor to this offense all season long?