Washington State rode the arm of quarterback Connor Halliday to its first bowl game in a decade last year, and Cougar fans can expect more of the same this season.
“Clearly he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the entire nation,” coach Mike Leach said. “You might be rooting for your guy, and I don’t care what you think. He’s better than your guy is.”
Halliday, a senior, led the nation’s fourth-best pass attack last season. He set school single-season records with 714 pass attempts, 449 completions, and 4,597 passing yards. He tied the school record with 34 touchdown passes.
“Connor finally weighs more than me, so that’s good, too,” Leach quipped about the slender QB.
The Cougars went 6-6 in the regular season and earned a trip to the New Mexico Bowl. They gave up a late lead to Colorado State in the bowl game to finish 6-7 in Leach’s second season at the helm.
“I think it cracks the door open on what our potential is,” Leach said of the bowl game. “I think our entire team thinks our season overall could have been better.”
Leach’s Air Raid offense also returns its top eight receivers, including River Cracraft, Gabe Marks, Dom Williams and Vince Mayle. Also back is running back Marcus Mason, who led the team in rushing and finished second in receptions.
But there are some offensive questions. Backup quarterbacks Austin Apodaca and Tyler Bruggman both transferred out during the offseason. That leaves only untested Luke Falk behind center if Halliday is knocked out of a game.
The offensive line should be improved this season, Leach said.
Defensively, the Cougars return seven starters from a unit that forced 30 turnovers last season, tied for second-most in the Pac-12. Top returners include defensive lineman Xavier Cooper and linebacker Darryl Monroe.
Leach had a typically eclectic offseason. He co-authored a book on the leadership strategies of the Indian warrior Geronimo. He also caught a 350-pound sturgeon on the Snake River.
Five things to know about Washington State football:
LEWISTON CALLING: For the second year in a row, the Cougars opened fall camp with a two-week stay at nearby Lewiston, Idaho, about 30 miles south of campus. Leach believes that holding training camp on the road helps build team chemistry and unity. One way that happens is by having players on different units room together.
ROLLING IN THE DOUGH: Taking the Cougars to their first bowl game in a decade was good for the finances of the coaching staff. Leach got a big raise in his compensation for media work — from $100,000 to $600,000 per year. That pushed his total compensation to $2.75 million a year, in the upper tier of Pac-12 coaches. The Cougars also will split an additional $500,000 among the assistant coaches.
NEW HOME FOR FOOTBALL: A year after building a huge new press box with luxury suites and premium seating for fans, the Cougars this season unveiled a new football operations building. The $61 million project gathered all the football-related functions under one new roof. The building will also be the dining hall for all Washington State athletes. It is located behind the goal posts in one end zone.
HOME SWEET HOME: Washington State has six games in Pullman this season, plus the Cougars’ annual “home” game in Seattle. That game features Rutgers in the season opener on Aug. 28. In Pullman, the Cougars face Portland State, Oregon, California, Arizona, Southern California and Washington.
STEVE GLEASON: Washington State will induct former football and baseball star Steve Gleason as the lone new member of its Athletic Hall of Fame this season. Athletic director Bill Moos said it is unprecedented to admit only one athlete to the hall in a season. “It’s an opportunity to focus on everything he has accomplished, as a student-athlete, as a professional athlete and as a role model and hero for so many,” Moos said. Gleason was a four-year letterman in both football and baseball from 1995-99. He was diagnosed with ALS in 2011 and has created a foundation, Team Gleason, that is a global leader in raising awareness of and improving the lives of those affected by the disease.