PULLMAN — If one play from Saturday’s loss to Auburn was evidence of Washington State’s offensive improvement, it probably wouldn’t be any of Connor Halliday’s 35 completions, or any of WSU’s three touchdowns.
This was more impressive, if not as glamorous: Facing a fourth-and-5 play with under four minutes remaining in a seven-point game, Halliday assessed Auburn’s defense and checked out of the passing play that had been called.
Instead, he handed the ball to Teondray Caldwell, who shot up the middle for a 13-yard gain and a crucial first down.
The Cougars failed to score on that possession and wound up losing the game, but it says plenty about Halliday’s confidence in WSU’s entire offensive unit that he was comfortable calling a rushing play on fourth down.
“We had a pass called, and they lined up in a 5-man box,” Halliday said this week during WSU’s player media availability. “And if you can’t run the ball in a 5-man box, you can’t run the ball ever. I kind of rolled the dice there, put my faith in Teondray and the boys up front, and they got it done.”
Coach Mike Leach said he was a little surprised to see Halliday check into the run, though he said coaches saw the defensive alignment and thought a rushing play would pick up the first down.
“We felt like we had it, but also knew we had to get, I think, 6 yards or so,” Leach said. “Felt like it was a good check. Didn’t know that he would do it. Hoped if he saw it and got the right thing he’d do it, but didn’t know if he would.
“He’s a fairly assertive and courageous guy.”
But even Halliday said a similar thought never would have entered his mind last season, when the Cougars averaged a touch more than 29 rushing yards a game, and virtually every down was a passing down.
“Just from a growth standpoint, it was big,” Halliday said. “(Offensive line) Coach (Clay) McGuire said he’s been with Leach for the last 13 years either playing or coaching, and he said he’s never seen a run over fourth-and-2.”
WSU’s 120 yards rushing on 23 attempts signaled a renaissance of sorts. While the Cougars’ running backs have no doubt improved, Caldwell led the team with 53 yards rushing on seven carries.
However, much of that improvement in the ground game is on Halliday. Leach rarely (if ever) calls a rushing play himself. It’s up to the quarterback to decide whether to check into a running play based upon the look presented by the defense.
“That was probably the best game I’ve ever had, run-game wise,” Halliday said. “In this offense, the quarterback calls all the runs, and like I said, that was the best game I’ve ever had checking runs.”
Halliday, center Elliott Bosch and linebackers Darryl Monroe and Justin Sagote were the only WSU players made available to the media this week, so cornerback Daquawn Brown won’t be able to share his thoughts on returning to his hometown of Los Angeles for Saturday’s game at Southern California.
There’s a good chance the true freshman will play a significant amount. He played much of the second half against Auburn after starter Nolan Washington left because of an injury. Anthony Carpenter also played some, but did not return after leaving the game.
Neither Washington nor Carpenter participated in practice Sunday. Leach, Sagote and Monroe all praised Brown’s fearless attitude, and Monroe even went so far as to say he will “feel bad” for All-America USC receiver Marqise Lee if Brown matches up against him.
“A lot of freshmen come in and they tiptoe, and they’re either afraid to make a mistake or they’re afraid of the guy across from them,” Leach said. “Daquawn Brown is not afraid of anything. He’s really excited to play, thinks he should play every snap and just loves the challenge of competition. He’s going to be a really good player.”
The Cougars haven’t played USC since 2010. The Trojans won that game, 50-16, at Martin Stadium.
Halliday thinks things have changed in the interim.
“To just be frank with you, we actually have a decent amount of Pac-12 talent,” Halliday said. “That team in 2010, half those kids wouldn’t have started for a good high school football team. We actually have some guys who can play at this level now.”