By Brent Stecker
There is a lot of positivity hanging around the Washington State Cougars as they prepare to host Palouse rivals Idaho at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
The 2-1 Cougars are coming off an easy 48-10 win over Southern Utah on Saturday and a huge victory over then-No. 25 USC in Week 2, and a clean victory over the 0-3 Vandals would provide a lot of momentum for them heading into their Week 5 meeting with No. 5 Stanford in Seattle.
“We have done a pretty good job maintaining our focus,” coach Mike Leach said Monday. “I think they are more fully invested. They work real hard, so when you work really hard, you are really committed to something, and then anything you achieve is more meaningful. I think there is a sense of that, and I think that it all starts with the effort we have had up to this point.”
Connor Halliday shook off a shaky start to his season by throwing five touchdowns and one interception in a win over Southern Utah on Saturday. (AP)
Winning three games in a row would be a big milestone for a Cougars squad that is in just the second season of Leach’s rebuilding assignment.
“I think this could be a season that people look back on and be pretty proud of, and that (winning three games in a row) is something we want to do,” said quarterback Connor Halliday, who ripped Southern Utah for 383 yards and five touchdowns on 32 for 41 passing. “I think that goes to show the maturity of the team, not letting distractions happen, and I think it is a statement to the work we put in in the offseason. This group is more dedicated than any other group I have been a part of.”
A lot of this week will be focused on the rivalry between the Cougars and the Vandals, though many from the WSU side aren’t too familiar with their neighbors from just across the state border.
“I don’t care one way or another. They are a good opponent and all that, and I enjoy playing them,” Leach said. “I really wasn’t aware how much they have played (us). I don’t pay a lot of attention to (rivalries).”
Though Halliday is a Spokane native, he said he also doesn’t know much about the history between the two teams.
“My mom went to UW, my dad went to Boise State, so I didn’t really grow up on WSU football. I didn’t really watch them,” he said. “I’ve never played (Idaho), but we are excited to start a rivalry this week. Other than that it is just the battle for the Palouse. Everyone is excited for that. … We are just worried about winning the game.”
On the field, Washington State will have to contain Vandals quarterback Chad Chalich, who has yet to throw an interception this season in games against North Texas, Wyoming and Northern Illinois.
“I think (Chalich) is a pretty good player. He throws it pretty well, has pretty good feet,” Leach said. “He is getting better all the time. All the games I got, he has steadily improved.”
Chalich, who has 648 passing yards and three touchdowns on the year, relies a lot on receiver Dezmon Epps, who has 22 catches for 261 yards.
“I think they throw it pretty good. They are more play-action, more quick gains underneath,” Leach said. “They have a really good package that complements themselves, and over the years they have polished it up where it is most effective for them, and they have selected the plays that they are going to run and be good at. So I think there are a lot of dimensions to what they do, and it is good stuff.”
The Vandals have yet to find a consistent success with their ground game, however, as only Josh McCain (112) and James Baker (110) have gained over 100 yards this season.
Horton the hero
The emergence of senior cornerback Damante Horton has been one of the biggest storylines for Washington State this season, and with good reason. After entering 2013 with just one career interception, Horton already has three this year, and he has returned a pick for a touchdown in back-to-back games.
Horton’s just one part of the equation for a stellar Cougars secondary that has helped the team limit its three opponents to an average of 16 points per game, however.
“Our secondary is getting better and better,” Leach said. “Horton and (senior safety Deone) Bucannon are playing well, and you got (freshman cornerback) Daquawn Brown really emerging, and (sophomore safety) Taylor Taliulu doing the same thing.”
Strong showing from Halliday
After a shaky first two games, Leach said he liked what he saw out of Halliday against Southern Utah.
“I thought he played really well, thought he really got a rhythm, thought he was real accurate, and I thought he made good reads,” Leach said. “I can only think of about two (reads) I didn’t like.”
The win over the Thunderbirds could be a big confidence-building game for Halliday, who evened up his season totals for touchdowns and interceptions at six apiece after entering the game with five picks to just one score.
“I think we played pretty well (against Southern Utah). I missed a couple throws, missed a couple run checks, but other than that it was good,” Halliday said.