TUCSON, Ariz. — It took a trip to the desert for the Washington State football team to find its oasis.
The Cougars (5-5, 3-4 Pac-12 Conference) ended a three-game losing streak that spanned five weeks, earning a 24-17 victory over Arizona on Saturday in front of a partisan — though somewhat thin — Wildcats home crowd.
WSU has five victories for the first time since the 2007 season.
“It’s a positive,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “You talk about playing four quarters, you talk about finishing, in our case in particular, I thought we did a good job of focusing on individual plays and not getting ahead of ourselves
and not extending any anxiety on a bad play or celebrating a good play.”
WSU’s defense allowed the Wildcats (6-4, 3-4) just three points in the second half. After WSU quarterback Connor Halliday threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Isiah Myers with 2:15 to play, the Cougars stopped Arizona on four attempts inside the WSU 20-yard line. Quarterback B.J. Denker found receiver Samajie Grant in the end zone on the last play of the game, but WSU’s secondary forced Grant to make the catch out of bounds.
Unlike their previous game against Arizona State, the Cougars got out to a hot start against the Sun Devils’ rival. Each team stalled on its first drive, and then Halliday marched the Cougars down the field with back-to-back passes of 12 and 13 yards to Vince Mayle. Running back Marcus Mason capped the drive with a 15-yard touchdown run.
“I just want to start out by saying huge game by the offensive line,” Halliday said. “To be able to run the ball for (101) yards — the sacks we had were coverage sacks, obviously, they gave me all day.”
Perhaps more important than earning their fifth victory of the season, the Cougars are within one win of being bowl eligible for the first time since 2006. WSU last played in a bowl game in 2003.
“I’ve been here for about three years now, and ever since I got here, I felt like everyone was just against us,” linebacker Darryl Monroe said. “Everybody laughed at us. Nobody ever believed in us. Nobody ever gave us a chance. Before you even step on the field, you get this swagger about yourself, this chip on your shoulder.”
On the winning play, Myers ran a slant route across the middle and then broke towards the sideline when Halliday started to scramble. He caught the ball at the 8-yard line and spun past defensive back Will Parks and into the end zone.
“During practice, we do it all the time — Coach Leach harps on catching the ball and getting straight upfield,” Myers said. “You can feel the guy coming so I just ducked. I was trying to brace.”
Halliday was efficient, completing 39 of 53 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns. His second score gave him 46 career touchdowns, tying him with Drew Bledsoe for fifth all time at WSU.
“Really good, I thought it was the best game he’s played,” Leach said. “Completed nearly 80 percent. In particular, what I thought he did really well was control the offense, keep them focused.”
The Cougars entered the third quarter trailing 14-10, then retook the lead on Halliday’s 23-yard touchdown pass to freshman River Cracraft. The Cougars only had to go 31 yards for the score thanks to a fumbled punt by Arizona on the half’s opening possession.
The play continued an impressive stretch by Cracraft, who has amassed 186 yards receiving and two touchdowns over the past three games.
If there was an area for improvement, it was in WSU’s kicking game. Punter Mike Bowlin had an exceptional start, pinning Arizona at its 10-yard line on his first two punts.
But then Bowlin followed a 3-yard punt with a pair of kickoffs that landed out of bounds, giving the Wildcats the ball on the 35-yard line.
Each team missed a field goal in the fourth quarter.
Those errors proved minor, however, and the Cougars won their third Pac-12 road game. Entering this season, WSU hadn’t won three conference games away from Pullman since 2006.
“It feels great,” Monroe said. “I’m ecstatic. I’m just happy. It feels a lot like the USC win but more intense. It came down to the wire, and things started going in slow motion, but that’s why you play the game.”