- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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The last we saw of Washington State, it was going rear-end-over-tea-kettle against Colorado State in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. Despite owning a 15-point lead with just over nine minutes left against a middling Mountain West team, the Cougars were, well, we're not going to type that hated term rivals use to tweak those in crimson and gray.
But it rhymes with "flooging zit."
The result was a stunning 48-45 loss that was difficult to even describe. Washington State had wrapped a bow around its first bowl game since 2003 and handed it to the grateful Rams. The Cougs had blown their chance for their first winning record in a decade.
The collapse was so epic and strange that it seemed perfectly reasonable to a reporter that he began an interview with Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday on Tuesday with, "New Mexico Bowl… what the hell?" And Halliday didn't miss a beat.
"I don't know," Halliday said. "I've tried to explain it to many people. I don't know how you go about it. You can point the finger in many different places. You can say you can't fumble the ball two times in a matter of 45 seconds. You also can say you shouldn't give up  points in a half of football. You can say we should have thrown more instead of being conservative. You can say different things, but in the end you've just got to find a way to close out the game."
True. But the result itself wasn't what pained Halliday the most. The worst part was sending out guys he'd labored beside for four years, through some pretty darn tough times, with frowns on their faces.
"Probably the hardest thing for me was that was my graduating class that was leaving," he said. "I redshirted, but I came in with all those guys. It was tough to see Deone [Bucannon] go out like that. It was tough to see Damante [Horton] go out like that. It was tough to see Elliott Bosch, our center, go out like that. It was a crappy way to send out our seniors."
Yet while there are myriad ways to parse out the misery of that defeat, the reality is it was only one game in a season that hinted at a program climbing out of the muck. In the second season under coach Mike Leach, Washington State had again become competitive. It had become bowl-eligible by winning two out of its final three games in the rugged Pac-12. Bracketing off the bowl disaster, the 2013 season ultimately suggested an upward trend in Pullman, Wash.
While some fans might still be mourning the ending of 2013, Halliday and his teammates have moved on as they eyeball the beginning of spring practices Thursday. If the bowl loss has any lingering effect, it's a reminder of what the program is trying to leave behind.
"I think we were ready to get back to work [after the bowl game]," Halliday said. "I think we are really hungry. Part of the deal that Leach has instilled in us is there is no real option, no real choice. It's just like ingrained in your mind that you get back to work. We're going to get this ship back on the right path."
Halliday's junior season was notable for more than a few passing numbers. He ranked fifth in the nation with 353.6 yards passing per game. His 34.5 completions per game ranked second in the nation. His 34 TD passes were second-most in the Pac-12.
On the downside were 22 interceptions, six more than any other Pac-12 quarterback.
Of course, Halliday didn't have much support from one of the nation's worst running games. His receivers were mostly young and therefore, at times, out of position. And he was often under duress because his line was middling and opposing defenses were pinning their ears back in full-time pass-rushing mode.
It's probably encouraging to Cougars fans, however, that Halliday doesn't play along with the option of sharing blame for the interceptions.
"The bottom line is I play a position where the fault is on me," he said. "It doesn't matter if the receiver ran the wrong route or protection broke down. No matter what happens, it's my job to take care of the football."
The offseason message for Halliday as he heads into his senior season is pretty straightforward: Make better decisions, protect the football, and this team will take another step forward.
Said Halliday, "If we eliminate the mistakes here and there, we can really do something special."
Don't quickly discount that as typical spring optimism. While there are some holes on defense and the offensive line, Washington State welcomes back its top-10 pass catchers from last season. And we're not just talking about warm bodies. The Cougars have size, speed, experience and depth at the position that rivals any team in the Pac-12 or, really, the nation.
"Go down the list. Everybody can make a play," Halliday said."It's a great time to play quarterback here."
There's so much depth at receiver, you have to wonder if Leach might move at least one guy over to defense to bolster his young and questionable secondary.
For Halliday, however the depth chart pencils out, he expects the program to make a mark in the highly competitive Pac-12 North Division. And, yes, that means going nose-to-nose with the top programs, such as Stanford and Oregon.
"Our biggest thing is to worry about ourselves, what we can control," he said. "But we are really not that far away."
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