Washington State football remains a work in progress as the Cougs sputtered to a 31-24 loss to Auburn to open the 2013 season in front of 85,095 boisterous Tiger fans.
There will be mention of the challenges presented by facing a SEC team on the road to open the season. Some will talk about the outstanding recruiting class Auburn attracted. Still others will say Coach Mike Leach needs a quarterback who can run his Air Raid offense.
All of those views are valid.
From this chair, WSU looked much improved over the 2012 version of Cougar football. That said, they aren’t quite ready for prime time.
The Cougs began the game in stellar form, marching 75-yards for a touchdown and 7-0 lead just 4:17 into the first quarter.
Auburn was able to negate the WSU lead thanks to working a short field requiring them to drive just 28-yards after Connor Halliday threw the first of his three interceptions. Heck, the Tigers managed a debatable 2-point conversion that would have put a smile on former Oregon Coach Chip Kelly’s usually grimacing face.
Twice during the Tigers victory there was a reminder of the number of outstanding athletes on the Auburn roster.
Tre Mason took the WSU kick return unit to school as he took Mike Bowlin’s second kickoff at the goal line on the run and burst up the right side for a 100-yard touchdown. Mason’s run reversed momentum WSU built following their second scoring drive of 67-yards.
Not to be outdone by Mason, Corey Grant got outside on a sweep to scamper 75-yards for a rushing score. Grant was aided by a blown call along the sideline where he stepped on the chalk twice without a ref signaling the play dead.
No question both Mason and Grant have outstanding speed and field vision.
When your team loses, there are usually plenty of issues which elicit finger pointing. That’s not the case when reflecting on this Washington State loss.
Halliday was rushed into making numerous mistakes, three of which were interceptions by an Auburn defense that managed only two picks over 12-games in 2012. If Tiger defenders were better at catching the pigskin, there would have been at least four more INT’s Saturday.
The scoreboard results will remind many fans of the past ten years of futility by Cougar football. Fact of the matter, you play the game to win. Rationalization is the tool for those who were on the wrong end of the final score.
That said, there is reason to believe Coach Leach’s squad is making progress.
WSU racked up 120-yards of rushing on 23 carries. Should the offense continue to run the ball at that rate, expect to see wins. Surprisingly, the Cougs managed just one passing TD while reaching the end zone twice on the ground. You have to go back to the Oregon game in 2011 to match that output when the Cougs tallied 125-yards rushing the football.
The most significant barometer of how effective Coach Leach’s Air Raid is working would be the number of guys who caught at least one pass. WSU had ten different players haul in a reception against Auburn.
Another measurement of how well the WSU offense is clicking can be revealed by the completion percentage of the quarterback. Halliday finished with 35 completions on 65 attempts. That’s an unacceptable 53.8%. Connor’s 65 passes are the second most by a Cougar quarterback since Drew Bledsoe aired it out 66 times against Montana in 1992.
Playing against a pretty darn good Tiger defensive front six, the Cougar offensive line appeared vastly improved. Yes, there is plenty of room for improvement but overall this loss wasn’t because the OL was overmatched. It wasn’t because the defense was undersized.
No, WSU hasn’t crossed over to a team that expects good things to happen to them. Specifically, they have to raise their expectations about winning.
This game was there for the taking, but the Cougs couldn’t manage plays when they needed them.
After starting a drive late in the third quarter on the WSU10-yard line and moving to near midfield, Halliday started the fourth quarter with three errant throws and the drive stalled.
Auburn countered with a 12-play 61-yard drive. The Cougar defense stiffened to hold the Tigers to what proved to be the final score of the day. Their 42-yard field goal put Auburn up 31-24.
Washington State answered that drive with one of their own. But with the ball on the Auburn 8-yard line first and goal, Halliday lofted a throw into double coverage that was easily intercepted.
Two plays later Taylor Taliulu forced a fumble recovered by Deone Bucannon putting the Cougar offense back in business on the 50-yard line. A couple of successful running play sandwiched around a pair of incompletions put the ball on the Auburn 32 with plenty of time. But the Tiger defense proved to be too confusing for Halliday and the Cougs gave the ball back with 2:09 left on the clock.
This was a game there for the taking. Clearly Coach Leach needs to continue coaching up his team this coming week to improve on the scoreboard.
- Freshman River Cracraft’s first career catch went for four yards in the first quarter, he finished with three catches.
- Freshman Daquawn Brown tallied four tackles in his first career game.
- Sophomore Jeremiah Laufasa’s four-yard touchdown run was his first career touchdown on his first career carry.
- Sophomore Gabe Marks made a career high nine catches for 81 yards