Halliday's big night provides hope to Cougs

The plan was to get the redshirt freshman quarterback some action. Get him some seasoning. See how he responds to meaningful playing time. Enter the game on the third series, and dip his toe into the waters of Pac-12 play against Arizona State, a team with speed to spare on defense.

That was the plan. Then Washington State's Connor Halliday threw an 85-yard touchdown pass on his first play from scrimmage. Plans change.

"Obviously," Cougars coach Paul Wulff said. "He needed to go in the next series."

And the next and the next, etc. And when the game ended at Martin Stadium, the Cougs were 37-27 upset winners and Halliday had completed 27 of 36 passes for 494 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. In a conference of quarterbacking brilliance, it was the most prolific passing performance in the Pac-12 this season, the 10th-highest total in league history and the most ever by a freshman.

The performance, in relief of senior Marshall Lobbestael, who had replaced injured starter Jeff Tuel in Game 1, also kept the Cougs' bowl hopes alive, which means he gave a big boost to the embattled Wulff's chances of remaining atop the program.

So it was a fairly good evening for Halliday, who prepped at nearby Ferris High in Spokane. Entering the game, he'd completed just 11 of 19 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns, mostly in mop-up duty.

It was enough for Wulff to tap him as the starter against Utah on Saturday. The Cougars must beat the Utes and then win in Seattle against rival Washington to arrive at a 6-6 record, which would earn them bowl eligibility.

A month ago, it seemed to Wulff that Halliday was content with being the guy holding the clipboard this season. Even when Tuel went down with a fractured collarbone during the first series of the season, Halliday didn't seem to view the injury as an opportunity to fight for the starting job. Though Halliday has yet to reach physical maturity -- he's a skinny 179 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame -- he has more passing skills than the game-but-limited Lobbestael. His shot was there, but he didn't seem to recognize it.

A few weeks ago, Wulff decided to have a chat with Halliday about being mature, learning the offense, practicing with more intensity and focus, and competing for the starting job.

"He's got to step up more and show more in practice so we can put him in the game," Wulff said.

Halliday took the bait, earned his coaches' trust and then responded with one of the best passing performances in the nation this season. It was so good that Arizona interim coach Tim Kish, whose Wildcats play Saturday against those same Sun Devils that Halliday sliced and diced, praised the freshman effusively without having any idea of who he is.

Said Kish: "The quarterback, the freshman, I don't know if that was a first-time, not having any jitters, throwing everything on the money type of situation for him, but he was spot-on the whole game." Kish added that Halliday was "magnificent."

Kish doesn't have to deal with Halliday, though -- Utah coach Kyle Whittingham does. And the Utes will challenge Halliday with the Pac-12's No. 1 scoring defense, which is ranked second in passing efficiency defense and leads the conference with 14 interceptions.

"He appears to be in the same mold as all the other very good quarterbacks in this league," Whittingham said.

Utah, winners of three straight games and perfectly comfortable with the chill of Pullman, figures to offer a stiffer challenge. Further, it's a different experience being a starter than coming off the bench. The pressure is different, not to mention that Cougars fans are expecting an encore.

But Halliday projected poise in the pocket against the Sun Devils and he showed no lack of confidence during postgame interviews or since Wulff announced he'd start.

"If you're going to be playing football at the Pac-12 level, you've got to have confidence in yourself and believe if you get thrown out there that you are going to make things happen," Halliday said. "If you don't have that confidence, I don't think you're going to be successful."

If Halliday maintains a high level of play and, particularly, leads the Cougars to a couple of victories and bowl eligibility, it's hard to imagine he won't set himself up for a legitimate competition for the starting job this spring with Tuel, a true junior who started the season as one of the top quarterbacks on the West Coast.

"Who knows?" Wulff said when asked about a potential quarterback competition. "Sure, it could [happen]. If Connor plays himself into that role."

Such speculation is notably rooted in a positive. It posits Halliday being good enough over the final two games to earn the right to challenge Tuel for the starting job, and for Wulff to be there this spring to preside over the competition.