Cougars bury Southern Utah

PULLMAN — The steel framework rising five floors on Washington State’s football-operations building shadowing the west end zone seemed to invite a metaphor for the 2013 Cougars:

Bridge year.

You know, another year to complete that construction that necessitates practice accommodations, another year to grow into Mike Leach’s system after last year’s 3-9 mess, another year for young players to gain a little seasoning. Even athletic director Bill Moos suggested as much, in a May speech in Yakima, that 2014 would be the year he expected the program to start winning.

But things changed, thanks to Andrew Furney and Damante Horton and the upset last week at USC. And when WSU took the field at 1-1 here Saturday against Southern Utah, suddenly it seemed a whole new world of possibilities was out there.

On a toasty late afternoon on the Palouse, there were fragile first-half moments for the Cougars, but sufficient big plays to nudge them toward what evolved as a breezy 48-10 victory.

We can’t know definitely the quality, or lack of, of this win. But at least by 2012 reputation, the FCS Thunderbirds (2-1) had wins over Eastern Washington and one on the road at Montana.

Anyway, the Cougars were due for something a little cushier after the physical wringer they negotiated the first two weeks at Auburn and USC. They played in fits and starts in the first half until a decisive final five minutes freed them of the pesky T-Birds and propelled them toward a rout.

Connor Halliday came out gunning, hitting his first 10 passes and marshaling his team to brisk touchdowns on the first two drives. He pegged a 43-yard bomb to Dom Williams down the left sideline for the first score and whipped a slant pass to Isiah Myers for the last 10 yards of a 61-yard drive and there were hints WSU might cruise.

But SUU had some tools, too, like 324- and 350-pound offensive tackles that protected quarterback Aaron Cantu in a short passing game that was initially nettlesome to the Cougars.

WSU’s first ineffectual series starting from its 1-yard line resulted in a short field for the Thunderbirds, who scored to cut a double-digit deficit to 14-10. Moments later, Halliday completed one of those infamous Dave Krieg/soap dish passes — to himself — for a five-yard loss, and it was third-and-18 with about five minutes left before the break at the WSU 45.

Just like that, it all turned. Halliday found Williams streaking down the left sideline again, behind corner Myles Carelock, and that made it 21-10.

Southern Utah pecked back with two first downs. But at the WSU 35, third-and-three inside a minute, Cantu threw high for 5-foot-7 receiver Griff McNabb, and there stood Horton, who intercepted and lugged it 72 yards for an easy score, his second pick-six in two games.

So it was 28-10 at intermission. The WSU defense, freed of any doubt, pretty much owned the T-Birds, while the Cougar offense mostly perked thereafter.

Halliday finished with 32 completions in 41 throws and five touchdown passes, one on what might be the first-in-history fade pattern from the 1-yard line to Gabe Marks.

Halliday, who had come into the game with five interceptions and one touchdown pass, threw another pick, but this one didn’t appear to be his fault. Myers broke off a route and SUU intercepted in the end zone in the second quarter.

That was the first of several occasions for receivers coach Dennis Simmons to lay into his charges. Another occurred when wideout Kristoff Williams fumbled after a catch (replay overturned it, showing Williams to have stepped out of bounds before the miscue) and a third when Marks drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.

Halliday took a seat and Leach gave redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca his first college snaps with 8:53 left. Apodaca’s first series was undistinguished, a three-and-out with two incompletions.

But overall, it was a red-letter day for the Cougars, who were better than the visitor and went out and proved it. That bridge just might lead to somewhere.