With 8:06 left to play in the game, a riverboat gambler if ever there was made a gutsy call. Nobody will ever call Mike Leach a patron saint, but the Washington State Cougars coach was down 27-14 to the Utah Utes.
He sent the play in, a crossing route. It was a medium throw that hadn’t worked worth a hoot in the first half–but it started making magic in the second. In fact, the more the Cougars tried it, the better it worked.
Leach’s quarterback, Connor Halliday, struggled mightily early, completing just a fraction of his throws. But in the second half, he came alive, hurling for 350 yards before this series had even taken place.
Leach is, and will always be known for his in-game modifications almost as much as the off-the-field antics that follow him wherever he goes. And so facing a 4th down with eight yards to go, Halliday kept his eyes down the field as his pocket collapsed around him–settling on his second option while he ripped a throw into a seam to his receiver for a touchdown.
That cut Utah’s 13-point lead to 27-21 with the point after, and silenced a boisterous Rice-Eccles Stadium crowd in Salt Lake City on a night during which sheets of rain pelted everyone in sight. But this was not Michigan in the Big House. And unlike the Michigan game in which Utah was in complete control, the Utes scored just two field goals in the second half against Wazzu.
Leach’s adjustments to Halliday’s approach before and during halftime seized back the game from the Utes and was the difference in the visiting Cougars later coming from behind to win 28-27 on Sat. Sept. 27.
For the Utes, who dropped to 3-1 overall with the loss, they had the game firmly in control early. A pick six on Halliday from 11 yards out opened the scoring. Three plays later after the Cougars punted back to the Utes, Kaelin Clay took it to the house on a 58-yard touchdown return, giving the Utes a 14-0 lead with 9:01 to play in the first quarter.
Clay received the ball as he was running towards the right sideline, spinning back away from one tackler, breaking another tackle as he hit top speed and followed his blocks all the way around the left edge.
Even so, there were signs Washington State was getting its act together–despite Ute fans acting like the game was over already after Clay breezed into the end zone. Halliday–averaging almost 500 yards passing per game–completed his next six passes before just missing on a sure touchdown toss to receiver Vince Mayle on 3rd down and 18.
The Cougars punted the ball back to the Utes, who two plays later handed off to running back Devontae Booker for a 76-yard TD.
Sealing blocks opened up Clay’s punt return TD–and so did Booker’s TD jaunt, a masterwork in which he found creases in Washington State’s over-pursuing defense as he hit the hole hard, galloping ahead for a 21-0 lead after Phillips PAT. In the end, though, the first three Utah scores weren’t enough to win.
“We definitely let that one get away from us, had a 21-0 lead but didn’t do much after that. There were a lot of positives for the defense, for the most part they played well, causing three takeaways. The kicking game was solid, had another return for touchdown, but when you score one offensive touchdown you don’t have much of a chance to win. That was really the issue. We have to be more productive, particularly throwing the ball. We ran the ball well. [Devontae] Booker had a big night. We dropped some balls and didn’t make some plays that we should have made,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said post-game.
With 5:52 to play in the first quarter, Leach did something else you rarely see: he called a timeout and huddled his entire team around him.
For the third time all game, Washington State got a first down on the very next series, throwing a simple screen to the edge. Disaster almost struck on the next play, as Halliday threw an apparent interception into the hands of safety Brian Blechen–but it was negated by a pass interference penalty on Utah.
Ever the riverboat gambler, Leach helped lead his troops down the field–without a tight end on the roster. 58 yards later, WSU faced a 4th down and 5–but the Utes defense read the crossing route–snuffing it out as the WSU player was whipped around by his jersey at the Ute 6.
One quarter and then some after being horsewhipped, ripped around and dominated at the line of scrimmage, WSU finally answered, scoring on a 35-yard pass play similar to the sure-fire TD Mayle dropped earlier.
As for the Utes, they continued to struggle as WSU’s defense got more physical–smacking Utah around to the point where it couldn’t capitalize on a drive. Utah settled for a field goal attempt from Phillips, which had enough leg but hooked wide left to keep the score at 21-7 with 2:51 to go before halftime.
The reason the discussion seems to be centered on WSU–even if we’re in Utah–is that the Utes offense, with the exception of Booker who had a monster 178-yard rushing day on 24 carries, was non-existent.
The passing game was missing in action, and QB Travis Wilson–the Utes’ soldier of fortune–was missing throws on which he usually connects. His 18-for-38 for 165 yards tells just half the story; the other half was that he didn’t throw a touchdown pass–nor did he toss an interception.
The throws Wilson made by and large were safe chucks to Kenneth Scott (6 catches, 70 yards to lead all Utes) on sideline comeback routes. The throws Wilson didn’t make eventually cost Utah the game after Washington State started crawling back in the second half.
The first real Utah mishap occurred before the half. A Gionni Paul interception put the Utes at their own 45 and a Wilson pass to Scott got them to the 27 on the left hash–the same mark on which Phillips missed earlier.
After Booker had an 11-yard run called back due to holding and the offensive line false started, Phillips had to line up but this time, his kick was true and so was his body slam on the ensuing kickoff as Utah extended the lead to 24-7 going into the half.
In the second half WSU marched down the field and scored–but only after the Utes turned the ball over. A Wilson throw to Clay in the flat looked good at the outset–but soon turned disastrous as the speedster fumbled, giving the Cougars the ball back.
For every three throws the Cougars attempted, they would run once thereafter–unbalancing the Utes defense enough to keep passing.
After the Utes went three and out on the next series, Washington State had the ball back but a fumble by Halliday gave Utah the ball at the Cougar 43.
Instead of throwing the football though, the Utes then went to the ground, bullying the Cougars time and again, earning a first down in two plays. With Booker at 19 carries on the night already, why do anything different? Besides, A physical Washington State secondary was punishing Ute receivers every time they wanted to make a catch–just ask Clay.
Passing yards were tough going for the Utes all night long as the game clock sounded to end the third quarter. Ahead 24-14, the Utes were still in command–but this game was far from over. But, the Utes were running the ball successfully and watching the seconds tick down on the game clock—their biggest enemy of all against a Washington State offense already at 300-plus passing yards.
After another drive fizzled, the Utes had to settle for another Phillips FG–which he pounded through the uprights for a 27-14 lead–still not over by any stretch of the imagination. Soon enough though, the Utes would feel like they were in a nightmare.
A drive that Washington State started at its own 25 with 14:13 to play in the game ended in Utah’s end zone six minutes later, cutting the Utes lead to 27-21.
Utah went back to the ground, but on this occasion, the Utes and Booker didn’t find any breathing room and had to punt–which helped the Utes because it was a rocket sending Washington State backpedaling to its own 8-yard line.
Halliday marched the troops out as Commander Leach surveyed the field, ordering a medium pass. No dice on first down, try again, he probably said. Back to the same guy for seven yards, bringing up a manageable 3rd down and 3.
The crowd stood on its feet, stomping in place. No dice for the crowd, who ahhed as Halliday tossed a ball into receiver River Cracraft’s soft hands for a 4-yard gain and first down.
The gambler, standing on the sidelines in his black raincoat like he was the Dark Knight who came to Utah to steal a victory, sent in the play call. Halliday waited and waited as pressure came, then saw his man.
He fired his pass into a seam, the same seam that he sought Mayle back in the first quarter. That time, the play didn’t work–but this time, this time, it did. Mayle raced into darkness only placated by artificial lights for an 81-yard TD.
Now you could hear a pin drop. The rains that pounded Halliday as often as Ute linebackers and defensive line had, had also stopped for the time being, too. Utah was fighting to stay ahead, its usual hero, receiver Dres Anderson, relegated to a supporting role this evening.
On fourth down at the WSU 49 and after two incomplete passes and no progress on two handoffs to Booker, the Utes faced 4th and 8. Wilson dropped back, chucking the ball towards Anderson, who tried to wait on an under-thrown ball–but had it batted away.
Echoes filled the stadium as the Utes went back on defense with 2:25 to go. But the defense stood firm this time, forcing WSU to punt and the Utes–who hadn’t done a thing all second half–to drive the length of the field to win.
An out route to Anderson fired by Wilson on 4th down and 5 from the Utah 38 was a cannon to the right sideline–but it bounced off of Anderson and fell to the turf. And so went the Utes on this rainy night, losing their fourth straight Pac-12 Conference opener in the process.