LAS VEGAS -- At midweek, the so-called "sharps" seemed to be paying attention.
The betting line here on the Washington State-UNLV football game dropped suddenly by two points to 8 1/2, apparently reflecting the likelihood that WSU's starting quarterback, Jeff Tuel, wasn't going to play with a bum knee.
Such plunges are typical when the gap between starter and backup is considerable. But that was a faulty conclusion, judging by what happened here Friday night in a nondescript desert outpost called Sam Boyd Stadium.
Connor Halliday, who has a track record backing up Tuel, did it again admirably. Making his second career start, he gunned four touchdown passes in the first half and ensured the Cougars didn't lose to one of FBS's most dubious football teams, 35-27.
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The Cougars led 28-20 at half, and near the end of a scoreless third quarter they quickened the offensive tempo and gassed the Rebels on a 13-play, 88-yard drive for a 35-20 lead with 14:07 left. That allowed WSU to withstand a late UNLV score.
Even at that, WSU had a confounding final series in UNLV territory, throwing twice when all it had to do was run to kill the clock, and for the second consecutive week, its victim was throwing desperately to win or tie inside the 50.
Truth be told, it was a confluence of Halliday and UNLV's ghastly pass defense that allowed him to throw for 378 yards on 26 of 45 with two interceptions.
Halliday had an 81-yard touchdown pass to Marquess Wilson in the first half, another of 52 yards to freshman Gabe Marks, and Wilson had a stone-cold drop on a route across the middle that might have gone for another 85-yard score.
Still, the Cougars continued a trend of inconsistency that maddens their first-year coach, Mike Leach.
Last week, WSU was within a goal-line fumble of leading Eastern Washington by 17 points with six minutes left, and at the end Eastern had a Hail Mary heave into the end zone going for the upset.
On this night, after Wilson victimized sophomore defensive back Kenneth Penny over the middle and eased into the end zone on that 81-yard bolt, the Cougars led 28-10 and looked to be capable of hanging 60 on the Rebels, who lost last week to FCS Northern Arizona.
But the Cougars don't do easy. On Vegas' very next play from scrimmage at its 25, quarterback Nick Sherry pump-faked and threw a fade route to Marcus Sullivan as Washington State's best corner, Damante Horton, defended. Sullivan snagged it, and somehow Horton, running stride for stride, managed to be nudged, shoved and eventually evaded all the way to the end zone by Sullivan, a truly horrific defensive play.
Earlier, with the Cougars on top 14-0, Anthony Carpenter lost Sullivan on a crossing route for a 37-yard touchdown, just after the Rebels' biggest offensive threat, Tim Cornett, had broken loose for his biggest gain of the night -- 32 yards.
The game was seemingly a must for the Cougars (2-1) if they want to wind their way to a first bowl game in nine years.
The math is still workable; they were figured to lose to Brigham Young and win their next two.
But on this night, their pass coverage was only slightly better than UNLV's, and at times in the third quarter, the offensive line was getting steamrolled.
If any team in the country has a harder time getting off the field on third-and-a-bunch, raise your hand.
Just as WSU was about to force a fourth down on UNLV's last scoring drive at the WSU 39, safety Deone Bucannon -- already suspended for the first half of this game for an egregious hit to the head last week against Eastern -- struck another defensive receiver, incurring a personal foul and sustaining the drive.
It wasn't blatant, just really dumb.
Still, twice in the fourth quarter -- the first time at the 25 after a key replay overturn and later at the 14 -- the Cougars mustered a defensive stand, giving them enough cushion to survive.
The thousands of WSU fans here among the crowd of 17,015 walked out, many not entirely pleased. By half a point, the Cougars failed to cover the spread.
That was the least of this team's worries.