Seven games into the 2014 season, Connor Halliday's numbers border on the absurd.
He’s throwing 63 passes per game, the highest rate in NCAA history. His 478 passing yards per game are topping college football’s single-season mark. And anyone who has glanced at the box score from his record-smashing 70-attempt, 734-yard effort against Cal three weeks ago knows what it’s like to rub eyes and re-read in disbelief.
“If any of our quarterbacks threw half as many passes as him, they’d need to ice their arms,” Stanford coach David Shaw laughs.
Yet here Halliday is, coming off Washington State’s bye week, ready to resume firing away.
The senior is in the midst of a historic campaign. At his current rate, Halliday is on pace to throw for 5,733 yards through 12 games. Former Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons -- another Mike Leach product -- owns the FBS single-season passing record set in 2003 with 5,336 yards through 12 games. Symons finished with 5,833 yards after the Red Raiders' bowl game.
Through little fault of his own, Halliday will likely only have 12 games to make his mark. The Cougars are buried in a 2-5 hole, and bowl eligibility seems to be a long shot. That has pushed Halliday’s flirtations with history out of the limelight.
“As a quarterback, I’m judged by how many points we score and if we win the game,” Halliday said after the Cougars’ latest setback, a loss at Stanford Oct. 10. “So I’ve got to figure that out.”
That’s a noble mea culpa; perhaps a vintage mark of a true leader. But there’s something patently unfair about it. After all, the quarterback position has most definitely not been Washington State’s fatal flaw in this disappointing campaign. The real blame here should lie with shoddy defensive and special-teams play, not Halliday’s blistering passing pace.
Perhaps the most unfathomable shame came three weeks ago in Pullman, when the unthinkable happened against Cal: Halliday threw for those 734 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions -- and lost 60-59. He drove the Cougars into position for the game-winning score, only to see a missed 19-yard chip shot field goal sully his all-time performance.
“It really doesn’t mean too much,” he said. “It’ll be fun to look back on it when I’m 30 years old.”
And just like that, in a moment emblematic of Halliday’s under-appreciated season, history was brushed under the rug.
The ingredients that made the record-breaker
As Halliday’s Cougars emerge from their bye week aiming to make one final surge toward bowl eligibility (they’ll need to win four of their last five to get there), it’s a good time to lift up that rug and appreciate all that’s under it. Years of development and fine-tuning have served as the cornerstones of Halliday’s assault on the record books. The eye-popping results of Leach’s Air Raid system may have desensitized college football fans, but make no mistake: It’s not easy to average nearly 500 passing yards per game, and the intricacies behind that ability are worth a closer examination.
Halliday began playing his position when he was just 5 years old, thanks in large part to his father, Duane, a former quarterback at Boise State. Halliday’s first record came his senior year of high school in Spokane, when he broke former Cougars great Mark Rypien’s league passing mark. Then came college football at Washington State. It wasn’t until Leach’s arrival on the Palouse in 2012, though, that Halliday’s full potential was unlocked.
“That first offseason (under Leach) was awful,” Halliday said, recalling that his new coach didn’t initially trust him. “I remember those practices. If something went awry, the offense immediately got 30 up-downs.”
Toward the end end of spring ball, though, Leach had begun to develop faith in his quarterback, and he communicated it in subtle ways. Halliday noticed that whenever there was offensive discombobulation, Leach would wait quietly and allow his quarterback to sort the situation out instead of stepping into the fray himself.
That trust was the foundation of the Air Raid’s multi-option approach at the line of scrimmage.
“Leach doesn’t put a guy out there as his quarterback until he trusts him,” Halliday said. “Because once [the quarterback’s] out there, [Leach] can only suggest stuff. Whoever is playing quarterback has the best look at the defense and the best look at the leverage.”
For all intents and purposes, Halliday is Leach’s offensive coordinator on the field. The head man only signals in one passing option. As Halliday approaches the line of scrimmage, the quarterback has three options based on the defense’s alignment: He can check to a run, he can stick with Leach’s pass play or he can design his own throwing option.
Halliday estimates that he breaks from Leach’s suggestion about 45 percent of the time.
That illustrates a remarkable amount of freedom and responsibility for a college quarterback. And along with his notably quick release, those are vital ingredients behind Halliday’s ability to frustrate opposing secondaries. Against Stanford, even though his offensive line faltered under the weight of the Cardinal’s ferocious pass rush, Halliday converted four consecutive fourth downs.
“We had the perfect defense called against him every single time,” Shaw said. “But that ball just came out so quick. We couldn’t stop it.”
The nation’s leading defense ultimately overwhelmed Halliday’s supporting cast, but even that unit was repeatedly flummoxed by the lanky senior who has become a living, breathing piece of a fascinating aerial assault.
A record chase and a season to salvage
Even as trust, precision, quickness and accuracy have taken Halliday’s game to new levels in 2014, he’s the first to admit that statistical success will fall on mostly deaf ears if the Cougars don’t start winning immediately. Arizona visits Martin Stadium this Saturday, and that kicks off a final five-game gauntlet that also includes dates with USC, Oregon State, Arizona State and Washington.
It's clear the record chase takes secondary importance in Halliday's mind. This is a fifth-year senior who’s played through a five-inch laceration of his liver, and he’s not done scratching and clawing yet, even if a disappointing ending short of bowl eligibility may seem likely.
“The only thing you can do is lead the guys,” Halliday says. “I guarantee you I’m going to keep playing hard, and I can guarantee you that I’m not going to quit.”