With the 2013 season drawing closer by the minute, it’s never too early to begin taking a look at Auburn’s opponents in the coming campaign. Starting today and running through Monday, we’ll preview Auburn’s foes this fall at an output of two per day. We begin with the Washington State Cougars, who the Tigers will face in Gus Malzahn’s debut as coach.
Who: Washington State
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.
When last they met: Ironically, the only previous meeting between these two teams also came in a season opener, with Auburn hosting Washington State at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Sept. 2, 2006. The biggest difference at that time was the Tigers’ ranking; while they will come into this season’s opener unranked, seven years ago, they began as the No. 4 team in the country. And they showed why they were worthy of that ranking against the Cougars. Washington State was able to grab a 7-6 lead after the first quarter, but in the final three periods, Auburn dominated to capture a 40-14 victory. The Tigers did the majority of their damage on the ground, rushing for 293 rushing yards, led by Kenny Irons’ 183-yard (on 20 carries), one-touchdown effort. Irons also caught three passes for 40 yards. Backup tailback Brad Lester scored a pair of touchdowns himself, one each rushing and receiving. Auburn’s defense did its job as well, harassing Washington State quarterback Alex Brink for the duration of the contest. Brink, who was coming off a 2005 season which saw him pass for nearly 2,900 yards, managed only 67 against the Tigers, with one touchdown and one interception.
The coach: Mike Leach (3-9 record last season in first year at Washington State; 87-52 record overall after going 84-43 in 10 seasons at Texas Tech from 2000-09)
2012 record: 3-9, 1-8 in Pac-12; finished in last place in six-team Pac-12 North Division
Total offense: 359.50 ypg (94th in Division I, 9th in Pac-12)
Scoring offense: 20.42 ppg (106th, 11th)
Total defense: 425.92 ypg (81st, 9th)
Scoring defense: 33.67 ppg (98th, 10th)
2012 Year-in-Review: The good: Leach, known for his high-flying passing attacks at Texas Tech, was able to replicate that in Year 1 at Washington State. The Cougars passed for over 330 yards per game last season, ninth-best in the country. They did this while splitting time between two quarterbacks in senior Jeff Tuel and sophomore Connor Halliday.
The bad: The Cougars couldn’t run the ball. At all. Washington State averaged a paltry 29.1 rushing yards per game, worst in the nation. Defensively, the Cougars were mediocre, ranking in the bottom half of Division I in every major statistical category aside from tackles for loss, where they had the eighth-best mark in Division at 7.67 per game.
Biggest area of concern: Washington State allowed a mind-boggling 57 sacks last season, the most in Division and five more than any other team. (UCLA, the next-worst team in that department, allowed 52 … but they also played two more games — the Pac-12 Championship Game and the Holiday Bowl.) So losing any player with experience on the offensive line can’t help matters. But Jake Rodgers, a redshirt sophomore who started all 12 games for the Cougars last season and saw time at every spot on the offensive line other than center, is gone of his own volition, taking a permanent leave from the team in May. He was surprisingly candid when asked why he decided to depart: Simply, he wasn’t having fun anymore. His absence makes the Cougars’ task to improve up front even more difficult than it was heading into the spring.
Key returning player/unit: If the Cougars can somehow find a way to keep him upright, Halliday should have an outstanding 2013 campaign. To assume anything else would be absurd given Leach’s track record passing the ball. Despite rotating with Tuel, Halliday still threw for 1,874 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. And he is far from a finished product, as his completion percentage (52 percent; 151-for-290) would attest. He also needs to get better with his decision-making, as he tossed 13 interceptions last year. As long as he can stay healthy — or Leach doesn’t become enamored with redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca — expect Halliday to be one of Washington State’s bright spots this fall.
Extra point: Before last season, Leach had never had a losing record or had one of his teams miss out on the postseason. But Washington State has grown accustomed to both. The Cougars haven’t had a winning record or been to a bowl since 2003, when they went 10-3 and defeated the Texas Longhorns 28-20 in the Holiday Bowl.