By Brent Stecker
If there were any doubts, Saturday's 44-22 win over Cal solidified it – the Mike Leach offense has taken off at Washington State.
The Cougars (4-2 overall, 2-1 Pac-12) took to the air 67 times to torch Cal's defense, proving that their air attack is a force to be reckoned with. But if there's another Pac-12 team that can match or even eclipse WSU's passing game, it's this Saturday's opponent, Oregon State. The Beavers (4-1, 2-0) have the No. 2 passing offense in the nation with 420.6 yards per game, which has translated into 41.6 points per game, good enough for 21st in the NCAA.
Oregon State follows the lead of junior quarterback Sean Mannion, who has 2,018 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and just two interceptions in five games this season.
"He's big. A good player, strong arm," Washington State coach Mike Leach said of the 6-foot-5 Mannion. "I think he does a good job for them."
Among FBS quarterbacks, Oregon State's Sean Mannion (4) and Washington State's Connor Halliday rank first and third, respectively, in passing yards. (AP)
Leach was quick to point out Monday that Halliday has come a long way since that game, though.
"I think it had more to do with Connor's development than OSU," Leach said. "Oregon State was a good team that played real hard. They had a real good (defensive) front – there were no real tricks about it. I thought it had to do more with Connor. Going into OSU, he never really started or played very much, so the fact that he has started and played six full games I think has definitely helped him, and he is way ahead of where he was last year."
Against Cal, Halliday looked like a star by completing passes to 12 receivers for 521 yards and three touchdowns. And even though the Cougars rushed just 21 times the whole game, Leach complimented Halliday on the way he handled the running backs in a win where they weren't used for much more than changeups.
"I think it is important to have distribution, and I thought Connor did a good job getting it to the backs – despite the fact that we didn't run it that much, they did have a few touches," Leach said. "I did think it went pretty good as far as there is a balance as to how many touches we had by position. I thought that was one of the bright spots from the game."
Even after a lopsided win, Leach said the Cougars are aiming for more consistency from game to game.
"The biggest thing is we are a team that plays real hard, we are a team that is explosive, but we need to be a more consistent team," he said. "I thought we left a lot of plays and opportunities on the table (against Cal), but I thought it was good that we kind of got in a rhythm, played together well, and I thought we distributed the ball well."
Protection equals production
Cal sacked Halliday just once even though he attempted 67 passes, something that can be credited to a stellar performance from the Cougars' offensive line.
"It's a big improvement from last year," senior offensive lineman Elliott Bosch said. "You know, we had a lot of sacks last year. Part of that's Connor getting the ball out fast and being able to get rid of the ball when he has to. Part of it's we have improved as an offensive line and everyone's come together as a unit."
While the pass protection has been solid, Bosch said they're looking to get the running backs more on track. The Cougars average just 58.7 rushing yards per game this season.
"We've gotta run the ball a lot better. We can be better in that sense," he said. "We can have wider pockets for Connor. There's always room for improvement. I mean, there was one sack, and he got hit a couple times, he got rushed a couple times. We can improve."
Cougars surpass 2012 win total
With four wins in six games, Washington State has already surpassed its win total of 2012 (three), and tied its highest win total since 2007. The Cougars aren't making a big deal about it, however.
"We're just trying to win each week. We can't start thinking or start talking about bowls yet. We've got a long way to get there," Bosch said.
Leach didn't put much importance on the total, either.
"I feel like we have to improve this week and win one game a week. It is a repetitious process," he said. "I thought we improved. I think we can be more consistent. We weren't a real consistent team."