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Washington State on brink of first bowl since 2003

By Brent Stecker

Mike Leach is not even two full seasons into his career at Washington State, but it's evident that he's made big strides with the program.

There's evidence to that fact in the latest win for the Cougars (5-5 overall, 3-4 Pac-12), a 24-17 victory over Arizona that was their third road win in conference play this season. Even more so, there's the fact that a win over Utah (4-6, 1-6) at home on Saturday would seal bowl eligibility for Washington State, which hasn't played in a bowl game since since 2003.

halliday arizona
Connor Halliday and the Cougars can clinch their first bowl berth in 10 years with a win over Utah this week. (AP)

The university has taken notice of the progress, as on Monday it extended Leach's contract through 2018.

"I'm excited about Washington State, Pullman. Glad I'm gonna be here," Leach said Monday. "(I) planned to be here to begin with from the beginning, and (I'm) excited to have a bunch of good recruits with me as we break in that brand new building (a $61 million football operations building scheduled for completion next May). We're getting better all the time so I'm excited about it. ... This is a great school to work for."

Junior running back Marcus Mason said Leach's extension is a sign of good things to come for the program.

"(It) just means that there's more years guaranteed of great Cougar football, and we just have more years of the same message and bringing in guys that wanna be around a winning tradition," Mason said.

The Cougars still have business to tend to, though, with two games remaining in the regular season starting with Utah. The Utes may not be one of the top teams in the Pac-12, but their victory over No. 10 Stanford earlier in the season proves that they're more than capable of an upset.

"Good overall team. Very physical. I think they're characterized in particular by how physical they are," Leach said of the Utes. "They're similar to Arizona offensively. Physical team, just high quality Pac-12 team, just like all of them are."

The Utes will be led by sophomore quarterback Adam Schulz, a former walk-on who took over for starter Travis Wilson after Wilson suffered a concussion against Arizona State on Nov. 9. Wilson's career may be over after tests revealed a pre-existing condition that could prevent him from ever returning to the field. As for Schulz, he hasn't been particularly effective in four games, completing 35 of 75 attempts for 428 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

On the other side of the field, Cougars junior quarterback Connor Halliday is coming off a particularly strong performance against Arizona where he completed 39 of 53 attempts for 319 yards, two scores and a pick, and also showed some previously unseen scrambling ability.

"It was by design by Arizona, it wasn't by design by us necessarily," Leach said of Halliday making plays out of the pocket. "On the move, (he) did some good stuff, and of course on a couple of them we converted our routes and put together a good play despite the fact we had to leave the pocket."

Washington State also rushed for 101 yards as a team against the Wildcats, something the offensive line can take a lot of pride in considering how pass-heavy the Cougars have been this season.

"As an offensive lineman, you always take pride in being able to run the ball, because it's on the offensive line group," senior lineman Elliott Bosch said. "We knew going in there they were going to give us some looks to do that, and we were able to execute and played well in the run game up front."

Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct an error in the previous version.

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