As Connor Halliday limped off the field on Saturday against Oregon and Jeff Tuel frantically searched for his helmet, the first big question was answered: Is Tuel healthy enough to play if needed?
Not long after, the second question -- is he healthy enough to be effective? -- also was answered in the affirmative (on his first throw, no less) in the form of a 25-yard touchdown pass to Marquess Wilson. Tuel would finish 4-of-4 for 62 yards in mop-up duty after Halliday had been harassed into a 33-of-60 performance for 348 yards, one touchdown, and one (very costly) interception.
Or not. Via Christian Caple's evening blog post:
Connor Halliday continues to take starter's reps, though I'm not sure if that's really news at this point.
Given that we now think we know that Tuel is healthy enough to compete for the job, the fact that there does not appear to be an active competition means it's highly likely that Mike Leach has now definitively hitched his wagon to Connor Halliday, assuming Halliday doesn't completely fall off the wagon or get injured.
As we've explored before, given the camps in which fans have entrenched themselves, this likely disappoints a fair number of people. From my perspective, I was always in favor of Tuel returning to the starting lineup after getting healthy -- I've never felt the interceptions were a worthwhile trade-off for the big plays Halliday generates, and felt like it was more likely that Tuel would grow into the big plays than it was Halliday would stop making risky decisions.
However, there are a couple of factors that have caused me to come around to Leach's point of view on this one.
The first one is this: Halliday actually played a pretty darn good game on Saturday. This was something that wasn't readily apparent to me in the stadium but came into focus upon watching the television broadcast Sunday morning.
No, Halliday wasn't as accurate as he needed to be. But the number of reckless decisions was drastically reduced, no small feat given the relentless rush he faced. (Which, incidentally, probably explains the accuracy problems, given the number of throws off his back foot. He might also have been a little more dinged up early than he let on.)
I think no throw better exemplifies his better decision making than 1st-and-goal from the 2-yard-line on the second drive. Facing a blitz and with man-to-man coverage on his three receivers to the left of formation, Halliday lofted a pass to the corner of the end zone towards Brett Bartolone. The pass never really had a chance to be completed, but that's sort of the point - it never had a chance to be intercepted, either, and fell harmlessly to the turf. We've seen a variation of that throw before, and it ended in an interception against Eastern Washington.
Halliday's detractors will point to the interception he did throw. I was pretty ticked off about it watching the game live, but again, after watching the television broadcast, it wasn't as egregious as it first appeared. It was a questionable decision, no doubt, but it seemed to be equally affected by a throw that didn't have as much zip as it normally does, whether because of injury or poor mechanics or whatever. Beyond that, a corner with lesser speed probably doesn't make that play.
There's no denying the result of the throw was awful, especially in the specific context in which it occurred, but taken objectively? I don't think it was as bad of a play as it first appeared.
Leach said after the game -- and reiterated on Monday -- that he was pleased with Halliday, and that he just needed to take the check down more. Being quick enough through progressions to get to the check-down takes continued reps, but is expected to come with time. Given the strides Halliday made against such a strong opponent, it's reasonable to assume he'll keep making those strides going forward.
And if that's reasonable to assume, the difference between Tuel and Halliday in terms of expected outcomes the rest of the season is probably negligible.
And if that's probably negligible ... it really makes sense to stick with Halliday, both from in terms of potential long-range gains and short-term continuity. There's simply no making up for the time that Tuel has lost, and with only about half the season to go, switching back to him and living with the inevitable re-adjustment probably just doesn't make a lot of sense.
I am conflicted about how this has all played out from an emotional standpoint, though: I truly feel awful for Tuel.
My empathy for him doesn't extend to arguing for him to start, nor do I think he somehow "deserves" something different than this. It is what it is, and what's best for the team has to come first. But it's hard not to feel badly for someone whose body has betrayed him and kept him from fulfilling his goals at Washington State. He is, by all accounts, a really good dude, good leader and hard worker.
And now he's on the outside looking in ... again.
Obviously, this narrative could completely change with one ill-fated hit on Halliday. But as it stands now, if Halliday stays healthy, it appears Tuel's opportunity to win the job for the rest of his senior year has passed.
What could the future hold for Tuel? Depends on whether the NCAA decides to grant him a medical hardship. If it does, I hope he transfers somewhere where he'll be the undisputed starter -- hopefully at an FBS school after taking advantage of the NCAA's grad school loophole. I'd love for him to remain a Coug, but I want him to have an opportunity to improve and head off to the NFL even more.