Located just a few miles apart, there’s always been an added intensity when Washington State and Idaho meet.
After a lengthy absence from facing one another, the Vandals and Cougars will reacquaint themselves on Saturday night, but perhaps with a bit more fire following an off-field incident between players from the two programs last March.
Former Washington State wide receiver Mansel Simmons was found unconscious after a brawl in a Pullman church parking lot that involved Idaho’s Roman Runner. No charges were filed in the case after prosecutors determined Runner was acting in self-defense, but Simmons’ career was over after he suffered a severe concussion.
Washington State coach Mike Leach and his players this week dismissed the idea that the brawl would have an impact on the game.
“I have no worries about that at all,” Leach said.
Added quarterback Connor Halliday, “We’re just worried about winning the game, that’s the only thing on our mind.”
The Cougars are trying to improve to 3-1 for the first time since 2006, the last time Washington State finished with a .500 record. They followed up their upset of USC with an easy win over Southern Utah and now face the struggling Vandals before jumping back into Pac-12 play with a difficult stretch with three of the Cougars’ next four games played away from Pullman.
Despite the campuses being just eight miles apart, Saturday will be the first time the Vandals and Cougars will meet since 2007, a 45-28 Washington State victory. Idaho has not defeated the Cougars since 2000.
Here are five things to watch as the Cougars close out their non-conference slate against the Vandals:
HOT HALLIDAY: When he’s not been throwing costly interceptions, Halliday has been among the most productive quarterbacks in the country. He’s already posted a pair of 300-yard passing games this season, including 383 yards passing and five touchdowns against Southern Utah last week. The problem for Halliday has been the interceptions. He threw three against Auburn and two against USC before throwing just one against Southern Utah.
“I think we played pretty well. I missed a couple throws, missed a couple run checks, but it was good,” Halliday said.
PROTECT THE BALL: Idaho is one of 16 FBS teams that have yet to throw an interception this season. Only three of the 16 have attempted more passes than the 87 pass attempts by the Vandals, with 84 of those coming from Chad Chalich. Chalich is completing better than 65 percent of his passes, but it’s been pass protection that’s the problem. The Vandals offensive line has allowed 20 sacks in three games, with Chalich getting taken down 17 times.
The 20 sacks allowed are eight more than any other team in the country.
PALOUSE POSSE: The 2013 version of Washington State’s defense might not be at the point of earning the moniker given to some of the Cougars’ best defensive teams of the past. But they’ve been a strength thus far, keeping the Cougars in the game at Auburn, winning the game against USC and overwhelming Southern Utah. The Cougars lead the country in yards passing allowed at 99.7 per game, and are 11th in total defense. They held USC to 193 total yards and Southern Utah to 213, the first time the Cougars have held back-to-back opponents under 225 total yards since 1994.
“We wanted to be way better than we were last year,” free safety Taylor Taliulu said. “Guys pushed everyone throughout the summer.”
STOP SOMEBODY: Idaho hasn’t slowed anyone down yet. They’ve given up at least 500 yards of offense in all three games, including 504 yards last week to Northern Illinois, which rallied for a 45-35 win by outscoring the Vandals 24-7 in the second half. Idaho is fifth-worst in the country, giving up 554.3 yards per game so far. Only Miami of Ohio, Buffalo, New Mexico State and California are allowing more yards per game.
BATTLE OF THE PALOUSE: At one time, the rivalry was so fierce that thousands of students from the losing school would be forced to walk from one campus back to the other after the teams played. That probably won’t be the case after Saturday night, with the Cougars heavily favored. But it’s a nod to a rivalry that dates back to 1894 that the schools are playing again even if nothing is scheduled for the immediate future.
“We’re excited to start a rivalry this week,” Halliday said.
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