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September 1, 2013

First take: A quick look at Arkansas State

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Who: Arkansas State (1-0; beat Arkansas-Pine Bluff 62-11 on Saturday) at Auburn (1-0; beat Washington State 31-24 on Saturday)

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ETArkansas_State_Red_Wolves2

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.

TV: FSN

Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network (WVRK-102.9 FM in Columbus; WGZZ-94.3 FM in Auburn/Opelika)

All-time series: Auburn leads 2-0

When last they met: Auburn began its 2010 campaign season with an easy 52-26 victory over Arkansas State. It marked the first game with Cam Newton at quarterback for the Tigers, and he provided a glimpse of what was in store for the remainder of the season — making the spectacular look routine. The dynamic Atlanta native threw for 186 yards and three touchdowns, completing 9 of 14 through the air. He didn’t look bad carrying the ball, either, rushing for 171 yards and two scores on 15 carries. Freshman running back Michael Dyer tacked on another rushing touchdown and totaled 95 yards on the ground, while Quindarius Carr collected two receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown. The Red Wolves were able to move the ball against the Tigers’ defense, especially through the air, as quarterback Ryan Aplin rang up 278 yards and a touchdown. And the Red Wolves were able to put some points on the board — 26 in all. Then again, it doesn’t mean much when your opponent’s score doubles that.

Quick facts on Arkansas State: Bryan Harsin is the third head coach the Red Wolves have had in as many seasons. Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze led the team in 2011 and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was at the helm last year. … Arkansas State snapped a three-game losing streak in season openers with its 62-11 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Saturday. … The Red Wolves tied a Division I record in Saturday’s victory, as it had four players — David Oku, Sirgregory Thornton, Michael Gordon and sophomore Fredi Knighten — rush for more than 100 yards. In sum, Arkansas State tallied 509 rushing yards, the fifth time in school history it broke the 500-yard barrier on the ground. … The Red Wolves are one of 16 teams in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision to win at least 20 games over the past two seasons. They are also the two-time defending champions of the Sun Belt Conference.

Which Tiger is primed for a big performance: The Red Wolves don’t have any glaring weaknesses defensive, with a stout defensive line led by sleeper All-American candidate Ryan Carrethers and a secondary that returns players who multiple games at both corner and safety positions. The one question mark is at a pair of its linebacker positions alongside Quashaun Lee. So look one of the Tigers’ trio of running backs — Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant — to see if they can put pressure on the back end of the Red Wolves’ untested front seven.

Which Red Wolf could give the home team fits: After Auburn allowed 344 passing yards to Washington State, Red Wolves wide receiver (and Phenix City native) J.D. McKissic could be a thorn in the Tigers’ side this Saturday. He had a fantastic season last year, winning the Sun Belt Conference’s Freshman of the Year award after catching 103 passes for 1,022 yards and five touchdowns.

Extra point: Two of Division I’s five active coaches who haven’t been part of a losing season as a head coach or full-time assistant (minimum three years of experience) will stand across the sidelines from one another this Saturday in Malzahn and Harsin. The other three? Southern California’s Lane Kiffin, Nebraska’s Bo Pelini and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen.

August 31, 2013

Last look: Capsule for Saturday’s game, including key matchups (and edges)

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Who: Washington State (3-9 in 2012) at Auburn (3-9 in 2012)

When: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.

TV: ESPNU

Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network (WVRK-102.9 FM in Columbus; WGZZ-94.3 FM in Auburn/Opelika)

All-time series: Auburn leads 1-0AU logo

Quick game notes: Auburn has never had a problem holding serve at home to begin the season, owning a 34-6 record all-time in opening games at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers have won six home openers in a row, with the last loss coming at the hands of Georgia Tech in 2005. … Auburn coach Gus Malzahn prefers to lean on his running game, and the stats from his stint at Arkansas State last year back him up: The Red Wolves ran the ball 56.7 percent of the time (540 rushing attempts out of 952 total offensive plays). Washington State coach Mike Leach is at the other end of the spectrum, as no team in Division I put the ball in the air more than the Cougars last season. In 12 games, Washington State attempted 624 passes, averaging out to 52 per game. …  The SEC hasn’t been friendly to the Cougars over the years. Washington State has played against the SEC six times in its history, posting a 1-5 record. The Cougars are 1-4 against Tennessee, and lost to Auburn on the road in the 2006 season opener 40-14, which marked the last time they faced an SEC foe.

KEY MATCHUPS

Washington State receivers vs. Auburn secondary

The Tigers return three starters from last season in corners Jonathon Mincy and Chris Davis alongside free safety Jermaine Whitehead. Strong safety was formerly occupied by Demetruce McNeal, but he’s no longer with the team after being dismissed following an arrest during fall camp. In his place is Josh Holsey, a former corner who moved to safety in the spring and has remained there ever since. They will line up across from a Cougars’ receiving corps that brings back players who accounted for 70 percent of their yardage in 2012. The unit’s top pass-catcher is Brett Bartolone, a sophomore. He’ll be joined by a cadre of other options in Gabe Marks, Kristoff Williams, Dominique Williams and Isiah Myers. The team is also expecting big things from junior college transfer Vince Mayle, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound physical specimen.

EDGE: Even. The Cougars might hold the advantage here when it comes to depth, but there’s only so many receivers they can put on the field at the same time. Assuming the Tigers don’t suffer any injuries in the secondary during the game, they should be fine.Washington-State-University

Washington State offensive line vs. Auburn defensive line

Most games are decided up front and it won’t be any different in tonight’s tilt. It doesn’t matter how many times the Cougars want to throw if quarterback Connor Halliday doesn’t receive enough protection to get the ball out of his hands. That’s where Washington State’s much-maligned line comes in. It allowed more sacks than any team in the country (57) in 12 games last season, but those close to the team — including beat writer Christian Caple — seem to believe they have made great strides during the offseason. The Tigers are missing their top pass-rusher off the edge, as senior Dee Ford is out for an indefinite period of time with a knee injury. That being said, it has opened the door for less-experienced players to get an opportunity, as Auburn’s two first-team ends — LaDarius Owens and Craig Sanders — are both making their first career start on Saturday.

SLIGHT EDGE: Auburn. Even with Ford out, it’s hard to give a nod to the nation’s most woeful offensive line in 2012. Expect the Tigers to be able to get pressure on Halliday with regularity.

Auburn running backs vs. Washington State’s front seven

The Tigers will try to get their ground game established from the outset. But the Cougars aren’t going to make it easy on them, as the strength of their defense lies with the front seven, led by linebacker Darryl Monroe, the team’s second-leading tackler last year. Fellow linebacker Justin Sagote started the last 10 games of last season, collecting 61 takedowns in that span. And along the line, Washington State brings back three players who saw significant action last season in Ioane Gauta, Xavier Cooper and Toni Pole to anchor its base 3-4 scheme. Auburn will try to run it right at them, with the option of handing it off to one of four players out of the backfield: Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber. That’s not even mentioning quarterback Nick Marshall, who is as dangerous with the ball in his hands as any player in the country.

SLIGHT EDGE: Auburn. Even with the experience the Cougars have returning, it’s not as if their run defense was stingy last season, as they only ranked 64th in the country in that category in 2012, allowing an average of 163.4 yards per game. Given the Tigers bevy of weapons at tailback and the fact they’ll be running behind an offensive line with four starters back, this matchup ends up in Auburn’s favor.

August 30, 2013

Auburn football: Two ‘different flavors’ of spread offense to clash when Tigers face Cougars on Saturday

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Ellis Johnson has seen nearly every type of offense imaginable in his 30-plus years of coaching.

Auburn quarterback will spearhead Gus Malzahn's run-heavy spread attack when the Tigers host the Washington State Cougars on Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Auburn quarterback will spearhead Gus Malzahn’s run-heavy spread attack when the Tigers host the Washington State Cougars on Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

No system is an island. When coaches see something they like, they borrow the concepts to incorporate it into their own scheme. Because of that, Auburn’s defensive coordinator didn’t have a problem with people who want to label both Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s and Washington State head coach Mike Leach’s systems as “spread” attacks despite their differing ideologies.

“The spread to me is three or four wide receivers on the field at one time and tempo,” Johnson said. “There are all different flavors. (Leach) wants to throw the ball more; Gus wants to run the ball more. What we’ve practiced against with our own offense in some respects will prepare us very well for what we’re going to see.”

Johnson said the Tigers will probably end up playing “two or three teams” this season that share some similarities with the Cougars. No team is as heavily reliant on the passing game as the Cougars, though. In 12 games last season, Washington State attempted 624 passes, which translates to exactly 52 per contest.

“There’s no question about it — he loves to throw the football,” Johnson said of Leach. “If you allow him to establish the running back, you’re in for a long day. You can’t just take a pass-defense approach and forget about the run. They have an offensive line that’s greatly improved. They’re good players. I think their running game is going to be more effect this year. It’s something you can’t ignore.”

It won’t be the first time Leach and Johnson have squared off. In 1997, Leach was the offensive coordinator at Kentucky while Johnson served as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. That year, the Wildcats defeated the Crimson Tide 40-34 in overtime, Kentucky’s first victory in the series since 1922.

Over time, Johnson has seen how Leach’s scheme has evolved.

“They ran a lot more two-back (formations) back then,” he said. “Just as wide open, a lot of screens, a lot of scatting the backs, free releasing them. They can line up in two-back or one-back, and by the snap of the ball, it’s almost an empty set. They’re checking out of there.”

On that same token, though, Washington State will have to contend with Auburn’s running game, which boasts a plethora of options in the backfield. Ironically, Leach said he was more worried when the Tigers take to the air given what he’s seen from quarterback Nick Marshall.

“He obviously can (throw the ball vertically),” Leach said. “He did it in JC (junior college) and they were impressed with him there and he’s a real athletic guy. … He’s good and hopefully he doesn’t get it all figured out before we leave town.”

Defensively, the Cougars will run out of multiple fronts and myriad coverages, so much so that Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee wasn’t sure what to expect Saturday.

“It’s the first game,” he said. “You’re not real sure what the other team is going to do. We’ve got to be ready for whatever they throw at us and anything they could do. With us starting a new quarterback, you’d expect that. With them having (so many starters) back on the same defense with the same coordinator, I think they’d have the full arsenal of tactics that we’ve seen from them in the past.”

And their 3-9 record didn’t belie how competitive the Cougars were last season, Malzahn said. During film study, he saw how Washington State played Oregon, which ended the year ranked No. 2, to a near-draw in the first half before the Ducks pulled away for a 51-26 victory. The Cougars were even closer against Stanford, losing 24-17 to a Cardinals team that finished No. 7 in the final Associated Press poll last year.

“They’re capable, even last year, of playing good football,” Malzahn said. “I think sometimes they got behind and it kind of snowballed on them, but we’re really expecting a much-improved team.”

One thing is certain: Both teams are committed to snapping the ball as quickly as possible. With that in mind, Malzahn wouldn’t rule out possibly slowing things down if needed.

That would be the option of last resort, though.

“It just depends on what gives you the best chance of winning,” he said. “We’ll see how it unfolds.”

August 29, 2013

View From the Other Side(line): Q&A with Washington State beat writer Christian Caple

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Before traveling across the country to cover this weekend’s game, Christian Caple (@christiancaple), the Washington State beat writer for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., took time to answer some questions about the Cougars.

Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday (12) throws against Oregon State last season. (Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP)

Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday (12) throws against Oregon State last season. (Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP)

Ryan Black: People assume that Connor Halliday will be the starting quarterback when Washington State’s offense takes the field Saturday. But head coach Mike Leach showed last year he isn’t afraid to play musical chairs at the position. With that in mind, how short is Halliday’s leash with Austin Apodaca waiting in the wings?

Christian Caple: I don’t know that the leash will be all that short in the opener. I don’t think Leach was ever too quick to yank either Halliday or Jeff Tuel last season. The fact is, neither was consistently productive enough to lock down the job, but both showed enough potential that they each deserved to play. I think things would have to go pretty bad pretty fast for Halliday to be shown the bench. One of the things Leach really likes about his progression as a player is his leadership. He’s really taken control of the offense this year. So I think he’s maybe earned the right to try to work through his struggles, if he has any.

Black: We all know how abysmal the Cougars’ ground game was last season, ranking last in the nation at an almost-hard-to-believe 29.1 yards per game. Is there any reason to believe that will improve this fall?

Caple: They sure think so. There have been more than a few comments this camp about how much better they’ve gotten, partially because coaches simplified the running game as much as possible in the offseason. It seems to be paying off. You see a lot more open running space during live-action team periods than there was last season, and the running backs do seem quite a bit more decisive and all that. Not sure how often they’re going to run the ball, but I think it’s probably safe to assume it will be more than last season, when they had fewer rushing attempts than anyone in the country.

Black: There has been a lot of talk — none of it good — about Washington State’s offensive line, from the 57 sacks it allowed last year to former starter Jake Rodgers’ decision to transfer during the offseason. Is the line a big concern to those within the program? Or is this a case of outsiders blowing things out of proportion?

Caple: It was certainly a big concern after last season ended. But the confidence level is growing there. For one, they’re a heck of a lot deeper than they were last year. I think they finished the season with six healthy linemen who weren’t redshirting. This year, they can go a legitimate 10-deep if they have to, and the performance of the starters has been a little more consistent than it ever was in 2012. Of course, it’s always hard to say with any certainty that they’re going to take a huge step forward until you see them play against another team. But for now I think it’s probably a good bet that they won’t allow 57 sacks this season.

Black: Given all the focus placed on the Cougars’ offense thanks to Leach’s well-known background, what should people expect on defense? How significant is it that the unit brings back eight starters?

Caple: Yeah, there definitely won’t be a whole lot of new faces in that group. I think a reasonable argument can be made that WSU’s defensive line could end up being the strength of the defense, if not the team’s biggest strength, too. They’re big I think when I added it up the other day, the three down linemen plus the hybrid “buck” linebacker average something like 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds and all of those guys saw the field quite a bit last season (Ioane Gauta, the starting nose tackle, started every game). Behind them you also have a pretty experienced group of linebackers. The defensive coaches all love Darryl Monroe, the starting mike linebacker. He’s the physical kind of player (defensive coordinator) Mike Breske wants setting the tone for that group. The back end is probably the biggest question-mark. It’s the most experienced group on the team they’ll likely start three seniors and a sophomore in the secondary but it’s not a unit that’s had a ton of success during their careers. Beyond senior safety Deone Bucannon, there’s not a lot of reliability there. But if the secondary builds off a pretty strong spring and preseason camp, WSU’s defense could really be pretty stout, I think.

Black: What is it like covering Leach on a daily basis? It’s one thing to read about his mercurial nature and myriad interests — such as his affinity for pirates and the book he’s co-authoring on Geronimo — but it must be a different beast interacting with him multiple times every week.

Caple:  That’s a question that has a pretty nuanced answer. Mike Leach is a really interesting guy, obviously, and that makes him pretty easy to talk to. I think that might surprise some people who only see the SportsCenter highlights of him saying wacky stuff during press conferences or whatever. But there’s more to him than that. And I think he has more respect for the journalism profession than most would assume. We’ve always operated on a pretty solid level of mutual respect, I think. Do I find some of his media access policies frustrating? Of course. It would be nice to talk to players during the week, for example. But he has his reasons, and I’m sure he hasn’t liked every single thing I’ve written, either. I’ve definitely never had a problem with him where I thought, “Man, I really can’t stand this guy.” It also helps that our personalities are probably more alike than they are different.

Black:  BONUS QUESTION: As a graduate of the University of Washington, how often do readers bring up your college ties when they don’t like what you write? Or has it never been an issue? I can say that by and large, I received a positive reaction from Auburn supporters when I joined the beat in July, though there were a few questioning why “they brought in some Georgia grad” to cover the team.

Caple: I think people pretty much realize I’m here to do my job, and that nothing as trivial as which university I attended is going to compromise my work ethic or my integrity as a reporter. But it was certainly an issue with the vocal, irrational minority back when I was hired. Some folks cared a heck of a lot more about the whole rivalry thing than I did. I got a kick out of that. Like, what did they expect? That I was going to write about the Huskies every day or something? How would I even do that if I wanted to? Anyway, some of the emails/tweets I got were pretty entertaining. It kind of became a running joke among friends. I’d written a tongue-in-cheek rivalry column back in 2006 for the UW paper that a lot of people dug up and kind of lost their minds over, and one kid sent me a fairly reasonable tweet kind of saying, “Hey man, what gives? Do you really hate Pullman?” We had a nice back and forth, and now he’s one of my best friends. I think that about sums it up.

7 at 7: A link-heavy look at the Cougars

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — There’s only so much I can tell you about Washington State.

That’s why today’s edition of “7 at 7″ — admittedly running a little late — involves links from people who have been around the Cougars far more than I.

Let’s dive right in.

1. Senior corner Nolan Washington is hoping to end his career as a Cougar on a high note after an uneven first three seasons, writes Bud Withers of The Seattle Times.

2. Washington State is going all in to upgrade its football facilities, writes Christian Caple of The Spokesman-Review.

3. Withers with another story explaining how the Cougars plan to kick their defense up a notch this fall.

4. Caple again (sensing a pattern here?) with a short story on wide receiver River Cracraft (an amazing name) and how he’s expected to contribute in the passing game.

5. Head coach Mike Leach and quarterback Connor Halliday are on the spot this weekend, according to Ted Miller, ESPN.com’s Pac-12 blogger.

6. The Los Angeles Times noted many of its local players will likely see the field for the Cougars at some point this season.

7. Finally, the latest news out of Pullman, Wash., is that one of its players is transferring. Logan Mayes, a junior defensive lineman, will head to California to play for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Leach wouldn’t confirm or deny that this was the case, but the source seems pretty trustworthy — it was Mayes’ father who revealed the news, after all.

August 28, 2013

Quote Roundup: Mike Leach Teleconference

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Washington State head coach Mike Leach took part in the Pac-12 coaches’ teleconference on Tuesday. Check out a roundup of his quotes below. (Providing a roundup of the opposing coach’s quotes will be a running feature at War Eagle Extra every Wednesday afternoon.)

Here’s what Leach had to say in his eight-minute call with reporters:

Washington State head coach Mike Leach will lead his team into Jordan-Hare Stadium to take on Auburn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Dean Hare)

Washington State head coach Mike Leach will lead his team into Jordan-Hare Stadium to take on Auburn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Dean Hare)

On what he remembers about Kentucky’s 40-34 overtime win against Alabama in 1997, when he served as the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator and matched wits with then-Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson:

“I don’t remember a darn thing (about Alabama’s defense). I never knew we’d gone against Ellis Johnson.”

On being informed Johnson was on the Crimson Tide’s staff that season:

“Son of a gun. I didn’t know that. Well that’s good to know. I didn’t know that. I felt like crazy that I’d known about his career for a long time. I had no idea.”

On what it was like to beat the Crimson Tide:

“It was a wild game and it was a heck of a game, I’ll tell you that. It really was a war. Kentucky hadn’t beat Alabama in 75 years. Can you imagine that? Now they didn’t play every one of those 75 years, but they played a lot of those years. For example, George Blanda was in the locker room. There was a fella that was a quarterback — and you could probably look it up — on something like the 1920-something team. He was the quarterback for that team the last time Kentucky had beaten Alabama on like the 1925 team. He was obviously in his 90s and in his wheelchair. He died not too long after that, well into his 90s. I’m not sure he didn’t stay around until Kentucky finally did beat Alabama (again).

“It was a heck of a game, back-and-forth. I felt like we should have won it in regulation (because) we had moved the ball awfully well. So when it got close, we had a good play or two on defense — got a turnover and blocked a field goal — and then down there in overtime we threw a curl route to Craig Yeast, who split two defenders and scored the winning touchdown.”

On preparing to face Auburn’s 4-2-5 scheme:

“One thing is that (Johnson’s) guys play really hard and have always played hard. And the other thing is they don’t throw a ton of stuff at you. It’s like they’ve got their philosophy and they’re going to execute it, which is honestly the approach I respect the most. And they just play hard. They’ve always been good at takeaways as well.”

On what he’s seen from Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall:

“He obviously can (throw the ball vertically). He did it in JC (junior college) and they were impressed with him there and he’s a real athletic guy, which is exactly why he’s had the opportunity to play two major positions on the team. I think he’s good and hopefully he doesn’t get it all figured out before we leave town.”

On how much he has prepared his team for playing in Jordan-Hare Stadium and the difference in weather between Auburn and Pullman, Wash.:

“We’ve kind of embraced the fact that it’s been significantly hotter here the past couple of weeks than it has been down there. And then from there, once a place is loud, it’s loud. Once communication is reduced to the point where you need nonverbal communication, it’s all about the same from there.”

On the temperatures in Pullman recently:

“It’s warmer here this week than it’s going to be in Auburn. The week before, it was pretty much dead-even. And the week before that, it was significantly hotter here in Pullman. And if I wasn’t on my phone, I could look at my temperature thing and tell you with some detail within the accuracy that that provides.”

On his thoughts about the Cougars’ offensive line since the end of last season:

“(It has) improved. And there are a couple more bodies we can work in there.”

On the offensive line’s cohesiveness:

“A lot of them have played college football before. (Gunnar) Eckland has played college football. (Joe) Dahl — I guess you can’t say Dahl has necessarily played college football — but (Elliott) Bosch has played college football. (John) Fullington is back and Rico Forbes has played a little bit of college football. We’re glad Rico is back. So as inexperienced as we are, we’re significantly more experienced.

On how he has prepared for Marshall since no film is available of him playing quarterback against Division I competition:

“Yeah, we studied that (junior college film) and then also Coach (Gus) Malzahn has got a body of work of what he likes to do with his quarterback. And then of course you respect the abilities of all those guys and just try to figure out how to get in position within the core of their philosophy. And there’s a few tricks he mixes in, too. So (we) just have to play good, sound defense. And the thing is, he’s a really good quarterback, but we’re going to play against a lot of (good) quarterbacks this year, so we need to get used to that.”

August 25, 2013

First take: A quick look at Washington State

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Who: Washington State (3-9 in 2012) at Auburn (3-9 in 2012)

When: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.

TV: ESPNU

Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network (WVRK-102.9 FM in Columbus; WGZZ-94.3 FM in Auburn/Opelika)

All-time series: Auburn leads 1-0Washington-State-University

When last they met: The only previous meeting between these two teams also came in a season opener, with Auburn hosting Washington State at Jordan-Hare Stadium seven years ago — Sept. 2, 2006, to be exact. Times were much different then, especially for the Tigers, who began that season ranked No. 4 in the country. Then they went out and proved why they had earned that high ranking against the Cougars. Auburn got off to a slow start, trailing 7-6 at the end of the first stanza. The Tigers found their groove in the final three quarters, brushing the Cougars away to take a 40-14 victory. Auburn won the game on the ground, rushing for 293 yards, highlighted by Kenny Irons’ 20-carry, 183-yard performance, which included one touchdown. His backup, Brad Lester, had a pair of scores himself, one each rushing and receiving. Auburn’s defense did its job as well, effectively shutting down Washington State quarterback Alex Brink. Brink had thrown for nearly 2,900 yards in 2005. Against the Tigers, however, he totaled only 67, with one touchdown and one interception.

Quick facts on Washington State: The Cougars haven’t had a winning record or been to a bowl since 2003. That year, they went 10-3 and topped the Texas Longhorns 28-20 in the Holiday Bowl. … Connor Halliday is the team’s leading returning passer, throwing for 1,874 yards and 15 touchdowns last season despite splitting starting duties with senior Jeff Tuel. Senior safety Deone Bucannon is back to lead the defense after tallying a team-high 106 tackles last year. … Since that 2006 loss to Auburn, Washington State is 1-5 in season openers. The Cougars’ sole win came against Idaho State two years ago, while they fell to Wisconsin (2007), Oklahoma State (2008 and 2010), Stanford (2009) and BYU (2012). …  Despite spending two years in the Southeastern Conference many years ago, Washington State coach Mike Leach has never faced Auburn. In 1997 and 1998, he served as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator, directing a unit that passed for more than 4,000 yards both seasons and set six NCAA and 41 SEC records along the way.

Which Tiger is primed for a big performance: Quarterback Nick Marshall could have his opportunity to make a statement in his first career game at Auburn. Aside from Buccannon, Washington State’s secondary is one of the shakiest units on the team. Marshall threw for 3,142 yards last season, but also tossed 20 interceptions. Coaches have said he hasn’t had a problem with turnovers during fall camp. Now we’ll see if he can do the same on the big stage.

Which Cougar could give the home team fits: Given how many times the Tigers are expected to run the ball, look for starting middle linebacker Darryl Monroe to be on the other end of many collisions. The third-year sophomore is already one of the leaders of the Cougars’ defense, starting all 12 games last season and collecting 80 tackles, including 8.5 for loss. He accounted for seven-plus tackles six different times last season, with a career-best 10 in a win against UNLV.

Extra point: Leach isn’t used to losing. Then came last season. Prior to Washington State’s 3-9 showing, the mercurial pirate-loving coach had never finished under .500 or coached a team that missed out on the postseason. In 10 seasons (2000-09) at Texas Tech, Leach compiled a record of 84-43.

July 15, 2013

Auburn Season Preview: Scouting Alabama

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

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. On the sixth and final day of our series, we conclude with the two-time defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tigers will host their arch-rival in the regular season finale for both teams on Nov. 30.

Who: Alabama

When: Saturday, Nov. 30alabamalogo

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.

All-time series: Alabama leads 42-34-1

When last they met: Gene Chizik probably couldn’t have scripted a worst ending to his four-year tenure on the Plains if he had tried. Entering the game 0-7 in SEC play, and not scoring a point against Georgia in their previous outing against a league foe, few expected the Tigers to be able to inflict much damage upon their arch-rival in the annual Iron Bowl matchup. And as it turns out, they didn’t. It was all Alabama from start-to-finish, as the Crimson Tide played with a resolve determined not to show any semblance of weakness as they prepared for a showdown with Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. The Crimson Tide won going away in a 49-0 victory over the Tigers, which was the second-most points Alabama had ever scored in an Iron Bowl and the second-largest margin of victory in the series for either team. Only the 1948 contest was more lopsided, when Alabama won 55-0. Alabama was up 42-0 at the half, led by Eddie Lacy’s two scores on the ground and Amari Cooper’s two receiving touchdowns. Alabama pulled its starters after its first series of the third quarter, with the victory well in hand. One day later, Chizik was fired.

The coach: Nick Saban (159-55-1 record overall in 17 seasons; NOTE: NCAA adjusted Saban’s record to 154-55-1 after Alabama had to vacate its first five wins of the 2007 season due to NCAA violations relating to players illegally obtaining free textbooks for other students; went 9-2 in one season at Toledo in 1990, 34-24 in five seasons at Michigan State 1995-99, 48-16 in five seasons at LSU from 2000-04 and 68-13 in six seasons at Alabama since 2007; four national titles, one at LSU in 2003 and three at Alabama, coming in 2009, 2011 and 2012)

2012 record: 13-1, 7-1 SEC (won SEC Western Division title; beat Georgia 32-28 in SEC Championship Game; beat Notre Dame 42-14 in BCS National Championship Game)

Total offense: 445.50 ypg (31st in Division I, 4th in SEC)

Scoring offense: 38.71 ppg (12th, 2nd)

Total defense: 250.00 ypg (1st, 1st)

Scoring defense: 10.93 ppg (1st, 1st)

2012 Year-in-Review: Alabama got the season started off right, crushing Michigan 41-14 in its season opener at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Crimson Tide’s next seven opponents offered little resistance, winning those games by a combined score of 284-51. Alabama was finally tested when it visited Baton Rouge, La., to take on LSU. Thanks to some last-minute heroics from quarterback AJ McCarron and freshman tailback T.J. Yeldon — the two hooked up for the go-ahead 28-yard score with 51 seconds to play — the Crimson Tide left Tiger Stadium with a 21-17 victory and their undefeated season intact. That changed a week later versus Texas A&M. Dazzling redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, the eventual Heisman winner, helped the fifth-ranked Aggies upend the Crimson Tide in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama was no longer in control of its own destiny in the BCS title chase, but got help when both Kansas State and Oregon lost on the same Saturday just one week later. Closing out the regular season with identical 49-0 victories over Western Carolina and Auburn, Alabama met Georgia in the SEC Championship, in what was a de facto semifinal for the right to face Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game. In one of the most memorable games the Georgia Dome had ever seen, the Crimson Tide punched another ticket to the national title contest after Georgia receiver Chris Conley caught a tipped pass at the 5-yard-line on the game’s chaotic final play. With no timeouts left, the Bulldogs had to watch the Crimson Tide celebrate as confetti streamed down to the Georgia Dome’s turf. And Alabama sucked any drama the BCS title tilt might have had in the early going, scoring three touchdowns by the opening minute of the second quarter. The Crimson Tide tacked on two more touchdowns before the Fighting Irish ever got on the board, romping to a 42-14 win — the second-largest margin of victory in a BCS title game — to earn their second national championship in a row and third in four years.

Biggest area of concern: Concern may not be the right word. Slightly apprehensive, maybe? A tad uneasy? Yes, they have to replace three fantastic offensive linemen in center Barrett Jones, left guard Chance Warmack and right tackle D.J. Fluker (All-Americans, all), but does anyone really think the Crimson Tide weren’t prepared for this? Anyone who doubts Alabama’s ability to reload, regardless of the amount of talent lost, does so at their own peril.

Key returning player/unit: The Crimson Tide are filled to the brim with NFL-ready talent at nearly every position. You name it, and they probably have it. But when you’re a team chasing the kind of history that Alabama is after this season, it helps to have a quarterback used to playing in high-pressure situations. McCarron certainly fits the bill. Cooper will return as McCarron’s go-to target in what should be one of the best receiving corps Alabama has had under Saban. And when McCarron feels like handing the ball off — which he should do quite often this fall — he’ll have an almost-unfair number of options who can ably handle the job. Even with Lacy moving on to the NFL, Yeldon leads arguably the deepest unit on the team, joined by fellow returnees Kenyan Drake (a speedster), Dee Hart (another burner who moved to defensive back in the spring but could still get carries in some situations) and the bruising Jalston Fowler, a short-yardage extraordinaire. Then, since they didn’t have enough talented tailbacks already, the Crimson Tide signed four of the best in the 2013 class in Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Tyren Jones and another member of the “all-cool name first-team,” Altee Tenpenny. McCarron has lost only two games in as many seasons as Alabama’s starting quarterback (against 25 victories), and it seems unlikely many defeats will be added to his total in the coming year, barring some (very) unforeseen circumstances.

Extra point: With its win in the national title game, Alabama (2009, 2011, 2012) became only the third school in the “wire service era” (since 1936) to capture three titles in a four year span, joining Notre Dame (1946, 1947, 1949) and Nebraska (1994, 1995, 1997). No team in the aforementioned “wire service era” has won three consecutive national championships, which the Crimson Tide are gunning for this season.

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Auburn Season Preview: Scouting Georgia

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

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. On the sixth and final day of our series, we begin with the Georgia Bulldogs. The Tigers will host the Bulldogs for the second straight season in Game No. 11 this fall.

Who: Georgia

When: Saturday, Nov. 16UGA

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.

All-time series: Series tied 54-54-8

When last they met: It was a dismal night for Auburn when Georgia came to town last season. With an opportunity to play spoiler and prevent the Bulldogs from winning the SEC Eastern Division title for the second straight year, the Tigers could get nothing going offensively, never scoring in a 38-0 loss. Georgia’s defense was playing better than it had all season, as the shutout against Auburn came after allowing nine points and 10 points to Florida and Ole Miss, respectively, in its previous two games. While the Tigers’ offense couldn’t score, the defense was unable to find an answer to slow down the Bulldogs’ balanced attack. Georgia ran for 289 yards — with freshmen phenoms Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall combining for 221 yards and a touchdown apiece — while quarterback Aaron Murray was coolly efficient, completing 75 percent of his attempts (18 of 24) for 208 yards and three scores. The Bulldogs’ shutout was the first in the series since they won 28-0 in 1976, and the victory evened the all-time record in “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry” at 54-54-8. The only cheer of the night from the Tiger faithful came when Jordan-Hare Stadium’s video board put the end of the Alabama/Texas A&M game on the screen just before kickoff against the Bulldogs. When the Aggies completed the upset to snap the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s 13-game win streak, Auburn fans were given a brief moment to revel in their arch-rival’s defeat.

The coach: Mark Richt (118-40 record in 12 seasons at Georgia)

2012 record: 12-2, 7-1 SEC (won SEC Eastern Division title; lost to Alabama 32-28 in SEC Championship Game; beat Nebraska 45-31 in Capital One Bowl)

Total offense: 467.64 ypg (22nd in Division I, 3rd in SEC)

Scoring offense: 37.79 ppg (19th, 3rd)

Total defense: 357.79 ypg (32nd, 6th)

Scoring defense: 19.64 ppg (18th, 6th)

2012 Year-in-Review: In nearly any other season, and at nearly any other school, 12 wins and a bowl victory would be cause for massive celebrations. But Georgia’s feelings on those accomplishments were subdued, since it knew how much greater last season could have been. Coming within five yards of beating Alabama in the SEC Championship Game in a 32-28 defeat meant the Bulldogs saw their dreams of playing in the BCS National Championship Game dashed in the most agonizing way possible. The Bulldogs started out the season with two of their best defenders — free safety Bacarri Rambo and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree — on the sideline for the first four games after reportedly failing drug tests. The defense, not surprisingly, was an up-and-down unit in their absence, usually putting one good half together in each of the team’s first five games, all victories. Then came South Carolina. The Gamecocks dominated the Bulldogs in every facet of a 35-7 demolition, making a laugher out of a game that pitted the No. 5 (Georgia) and No. 6 (South Carolina) teams in the country heading into the weekend. Two weeks later, Georgia got by SEC doormat Kentucky by the skin of its teeth in a 29-24 win, causing strong safety Shawn Williams — who rarely made himself available for interviews —  to call out his defensive teammates in front of media members for “playing soft” two days later. Coincidentally, Williams made his comments during the week of the Florida game. That lit a fire under the Bulldogs’ defense, as it allowed only 45 points over its next five games. While the defense took until the midway point of the season to find itself, Georgia’s offense was in a rhythm seemingly from the get-go. The Bulldogs set numerous records on offense on the arm of Murray and the two-headed tandem of Gurley and Marshall at tailback, including most points in a season (529) and highest average per game (37.8). After Georgia lost the SEC Championship Game to Alabama, it rebounded to beat Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl 45-31, the Bulldogs’ first bowl victory since the 2009 Independence Bowl against then-Big 12 member Texas A&M.

Biggest area of concern: Many may look at the linebacking unit and see that both master-of-havoc Jarvis Jones and Ogletree have taken their services to the NFL, and from there, draw conclusions that the unit was in serious trouble this fall. And that line of thinking couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, Jones and Ogletree were key contributors on the defense, but Jordan Jenkins, who roomed with Jones on every road trip last season, was being groomed to take Jones’ place whenever the Columbus native left. Jenkins proved it on the field, finishing second on the team in sacks (five) — behind his mentor, of course. Another starter at linebacker, junior Amarlo Herrera, will also be back to provide additional leadership. No, the area of greatest concern for the Bulldogs this season is the secondary. Losing three senior starters in Williams, Rambo and Sanders Commings — as well as longtime starter Branden Smith, who was knocked out of the starting lineup by Damian Swann last year — leaves the back end of Georgia’s defense to young, inexperienced players. Aside from Swann at one cornerback spot, the other three positions in the secondary are still fluid heading into the Bulldogs’ preseason camp.

Key returning player/unit: Undoubtedly, the most important piece back for the Bulldogs is their fifth-year signal-caller, Murray. He returns for one last go-round in the SEC on the verge of breaking nearly every passing-related record in league history. In 2012, he became the first SEC quarterback to pass for 3,000-plus yards in three straight seasons. He needs just 1,438 yards to break David Greene’s school and conference record for passing yards (11,528) and with 95 touchdown passes, Murray is only behind former Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel (114) on the SEC’s all-time list. To knock Wuerffel out of the top spot, Murray must toss 20 touchdown passes this season. Given what he has returning on offense — the Bulldogs are bringing back 10 starters from last season — it’s a good bet the Tampa, Fla., native becomes the record holder in both departments as long as he stays healthy.

Extra point: Georgia’s 12 wins last year marked only the third time in school history it had recorded that many victories in a single season. The other two teams (1980 and 2002) both won the SEC title. The 1980 team also won the national championship that year, while the 2002 squad set a school record for most wins in a season with 13.

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July 14, 2013

Auburn Season Preview: Scouting Tennessee

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

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. On Day 5, we continue with the Tennessee Volunteers. The Tigers will travel to Knoxville, Tenn., to face the Volunteers in Game No. 10 this fall.

Who:  Tennessee

When: Saturday, Nov. 9

Where: Neyland Stadium (102,455) | Knoxville, Tenn.

All-time series: Auburn leads 27-21-3

When last they met:The-University-of-Tennessee-Knoxville-01742867 When Auburn traveled to Neyland Stadium in 2009, Gene Chizik was still in his honeymoon period as the Tigers coach. Auburn was 4-0 heading into the game, and Tennessee provided an opportunity for the Tigers to pick up the first signature win of Chizik’s tenure. And the Tigers went out and did exactly that, grabbing a lead in the first quarter and never trailing in the 26-22 victory, marking Auburn’s fifth straight win over Tennessee, its longest streak in a series that dates back to 1900. The Tigers jumped out to a 13-0 lead following running back Ben Tate’s 11-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. The teams then went on a series of scoring runs until Auburn kicker Wes Byrum nailed a 22-yard field goal with 39 seconds remaining to extend the Tigers’ advantage to 26-16 and put the game out of reach. Tennessee added one more six-pointer, as quarterback Jonathan Crompton connected on a 32-yard touchdown pass to wideout Denarius Moore as time expired to cut the final margin to 26-22. The Volunteers declined to kick an extra point. Auburn used this win to improve to 5-0 on the season — its best start since 2006 — but the zero in the loss column was erased the following week,  losing at Arkansas in the first of what would be three straight defeats. Auburn went on to finish with an 8-5 record in Chizik’s debut season. Meanwhile, this 26-22 defeat dropped Tennessee to 2-3 overall and 0-2 in conference play. The Volunteers would circle the wagons the following week, decimating Georgia in a dominant 45-19 home victory. Tennessee continued to be a streaky squad for the remainder of 2009, but it still managed to put together a winning season (7-5) in Kiffin’s first year.

The coach: Butch Jones (First year as Tennessee’s head coach; 50-27 record overall, going 23-14 in three seasons at Cincinnati from 2010-12 and 27-13 in three seasons at Central Michigan from 2007-09)

2012 record: 5-7, 1-7 SEC; finished in sixth place in SEC East

Total offense: 475.92 ypg (18th in Division, 2nd in SEC)

Scoring offense: 36.17 ppg (22nd, 4th)

Total defense: 471.33 ypg (107th, 14th)

Scoring defense: 35.67 ppg (104th, 14th)

2012 Year-in-Review: The numbers above should be able to tell it all. The Volunteers had an explosive passing attack, averaging over 315 yards per game behind quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter. They also had the fourth-best scoring offense in the league, just a tick above 36 points per contest. But Tennessee’s rushing attack proved inconsistent when it was called upon to help run time off the clock and hold leads. Even the most time-consuming offense imaginable might not have been enough when you trot out a defense like the Volunteers had last season, though. Tennessee wasn’t just bad; it was historically, embarrassingly bad. The unit ranked in the bottom quarter of the conference in every major statistical category. In some areas, the Volunteers were the league-worst, such as total defense and scoring defense. (Again, see numbers above.) The defense gave up nearly 190 yards per game on the ground, which ranked ahead of only Auburn in the SEC. The low point of the 2012 season — in a year filled with innumerable moments Tennessee fans would rather forget — came in a too-close-for-comfort win against Troy on Nov. 3. The Volunteers escaped with a victory (and escaped is putting it lightly), but not without the Trojans taking a blow-torch to Tennessee’s record book in the 55-48 scoring fest. The Sun Belt Conference school, which came into the game with a .500 record, racked up a mind-numbing 721 yards (496 passing, 225 rushing) of total offense in defeat, setting a new standard for a Tennessee opponent. That victory moved the Volunteers to 4-5 overall, but the momentum was short-lived, as they lost back-to-back games to Missouri (51-48 at home in overtime) and Vanderbilt (a 41-18 shellacking on the road). After the 23-point loss to the Commodores — which marked the most points they’ve scored against the Vols since a 51-7 obliteration in 1923 and their largest margin of over Tennessee since a 26-0 win in 1954 — Derek Dooley was finally relieved of his duties as coach. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was promoted to interim coach for Tennessee’s regular season finale against Kentucky. The Volunteers beat the Wildcats 37-17 to make sure they wouldn’t go winless in the SEC for the first time in school history. (And here, let us pause as all Tennessee fans give thanks that Kentucky fields a football team.)

Biggest area of concern: No surprise here: The Volunteers have to find a way to replace the production of the departed Bray, Patterson and Hunter. At quarterback, Justin Worley will likely step in after appearing in nine games in his Volunteers career. Though he didn’t start a game last season, he was in the starting lineup three times during the 2011 season, experience the two other contenders for the job — redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and true freshman Riley Ferguson — can’t say. The receiving corps, on the other hand, was decimated last season. The Volunteers lost their top four players in terms of receiving yardage in Hunter, Patterson, tight end Mychal Rivera and wide receiver Zach Rogers. Alton Howard, listed as “Pig Howard” on Tennessee’s official roster, is the leading returner at wide receiver in receptions (13), and expect that total to vastly improve this year. The Volunteers also have a backfield that can buttress their passing game, as both senior Rajion Neal and junior Marlin Lane are blessed with good hands. The duo combined for 377 yards (on 48 catches) and four touchdowns in 2012.

Key returning player/unit: Aside from quarterback and wide receiver, Tennessee brings back a wealth of experience elsewhere on offense. Four starters on the line return, led by left tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson, a 6-foot-6, 332-pound behemoth. He is joined by center James Stone, right guard Zach Fulton and right tackle Ju’Wuan James. No matter who starts at quarterback or eventually develops at receiver, the line should be able to provide ample time for Neal and Lane to find running lanes for big chunks of yardage.

Extra point: Dooley left with the lowest winning percentage (.417, 15-21 overall) of any Volunteers coach with at least three seasons on the job. You have to go back over 100 years to find the next-lowest in George Levene, who held the position from 1907-09. But even he won nearly 60 percent of his games, going 15-10-3 (.589) in his three years leading the Tennessee football program.

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