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August 31, 2013

Auburn ekes out 31-24 win over Washington State in season opener

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. Auburn’s season opener against Washington State on Saturday was in doubt until nearly the final minute.

But when Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday’s fourth-and-five pass from Auburn’s 27-yard line sailed out of bounds with just over two minutes remaining, the outcome was sealed.

Gus Malzahn was able to celebrate in his first game as Auburn's head coach, as the Tigers pulled out a 31-24 win over the Washington State Cougars. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Gus Malzahn was able to celebrate following his first game as Auburn’s head coach, as the Tigers pulled out a 31-24 win over the Washington State Cougars on Saturday night.
(Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

The Tigers (1-0) had done just enough to hold on for a 31-24 victory to make Gus Malzahn’s debut as head coach a successful one.

“They found a way to win,” Malzahn said in his postgame press conference. “We’re committed to getting better each practice and each game, and we are.”

To say the contest went according to script would be a bit too easy, though.

The pregame thought was the Tigers would pound the ball on the ground while the Cougars would take to the air, each following their coach’s preferred method of moving the ball.

On Saturday, Malzahn’s scheme reigned supreme, as the Tigers’ 297 rushing yards proved to be more effective than the Cougars’ 344 passing yards. In an ironic twist, however, Washington State matched Auburn in terms of rushing touchdowns, with each team scoring twice via the running game.

And though the teams combined to put 55 points on the board, the second half was notable for its paucity of scoring. The final two quarters saw just nine points scored, all coming courtesy of each team’s placekickers.

The pedestrian pace of the second half scoring was a far cry from the frenetic tempo of the opening 30 minutes.

“Our coaches did a good job of adjusting,” Malzahn said. “But give (Washington State) credit. That’s a really good team.”

Things couldn’t have started much worse for the Tigers. Washington State (0-1) received to open the game, and promptly marched down the field for a touchdown. The Cougars covered the 75 yards in 12 plays, capped by Jeremiah Laufasa’s touchdown run from four yards out.

Auburn failed to match Washington State on its own opening drive, as the Tigers went three-and-out. The Tigers next possession was equally unfruitful, picking up just five yards before punting once more.

Needing a spark, a “Star” provided it. Robenson Therezie — pushed into the starting lineup in the place of starter Justin Garrett — came up with an interception on the Cougars’ ensuing drive, helping the Tigers set up shop at the Washington State 24-yard line.

Four plays later, Auburn had its first touchdown of the season, as Tre Mason ran up the middle for eight yards, dragging Washington State defenders along with him into the end zone.

But the Tigers didn’t settle for just getting an extra point: Malzahn wanted more — and the Tigers got it. Senior defensive back Ryan White ran it in for a two-point conversion to put Auburn ahead 8-7 at the 2:26 mark of the opening period.

As soon as the second quarter began, the game finally started to resemble the quick-strike scoring attacks both coaches desire. The lead changed hands four times, with two Tiger touchdowns covering 50 yards or more.

The first score went for double that, as Mason returned a kickoff 100 yards, the second such touchdown of his career and first since he had a 97-yard touchdown return against Utah State in the 2011 season opener.

Corey Grant scored on a 75-yard touchdown run later in the quarter, which was the first of his career.

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.

August 20, 2013

Auburn notes: Gus Malzahn looks back at first fall camp as Tigers coach, feels team covered ‘all of our situations’

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s practice on Tuesday had a game-week feel to it.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn recapped his first fall camp at Auburn following the team's 21st and final practice on Tuesday. (File photo)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn recapped his first fall camp at Auburn following the team’s 21st and final practice on Tuesday. (File photo)

Following the Tigers’ 21st and final session of fall camp, head coach Gus Malzahn said his team is already “full force” into planning for the season opener against Washington State on Aug. 31. But first, he recapped his first fall camp at the helm of Auburn’s program.

“When I look back on the whole camp, I felt we did improve,” Malzahn said. “I felt like we were able to cover all of our situations. I felt like we were able to put our guys into situations to evaluate.”

The Tigers’ offense also ended camp on a high note, with Malzahn noting the unit had its “best rhythm that we’ve had” since he took over as coach.

“That’s a good thing,” he said. “It looked like we knew what we were doing today, and the timing was very good.”

When Auburn returns to practice on Thursday, it will start getting into a weekly regular season routine. And Malzahn couldn’t be more thankful to have more time to continue working with his team, especially since Nick Marshall is still becoming comfortable with the first-team offense.

“I think that’s very good with a starting quarterback who didn’t go through spring,” he said. “We need the extra time.”

Though Washington State went 3-9 last year, it beat arch-rival Washington in the season finale. In an early look at the Cougars, Malzahn came away impressed with what he saw on film.

“They have the majority of their guys coming back,” he said. “We’re expecting it will be a good team coming in here, and we’ll have to play well.”

However, making any comparisons between the two up-tempo offenses would be a mistake, Malzahn said, since he prefers to lean on a strong running game, while Washington State head coach Mike Leach passes at nearly every opportunity.

With that in mind, Auburn’s defensive line is already licking its chops.

“I think pretty much everyone knows that sacks equal moneymakers,” junior defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. “But definitely this whole technique, this whole change of defense and starting off (getting up the field) vertically, that’s going to set everything up. If it’s a run play, we’ve got stick it. If it’s a pass play, we’ve got to work off the pass-rush. I definitely can’t wait to get out there.”

Though the Cougars are so thin on the offensive line they could start as many four current or former walk-ons, Angelo Blackson isn’t underestimating his opponent.

“We’re not going to look down upon nobody,” the junior defensive tackle said. “Those guys are coming in here wanting to beat us with nothing to lose, so we’re going to prepare for them like we prepare for everybody else.”

That’s where it helps to have quarterback Tucker Tuberville, whose knowledge of Leach’s system — with many elements remaining in place after his father Tommy Tuberville replaced Leach as Texas Tech’s coach — will be a boost when he’s running the scout team offense.

“He gets the ball out of his hands quick,” Malzahn said, “and that’s good.”

The divergent offensive schemes of the two teams stretched to their base defenses as well, since Malzahn could find few, if any, similarities.

“They are unique,” he said. “They do a little bit of everything. You’ve got to be prepared for the different fronts. They bring a lot of pressures.”

Those are the kinds of things Cassanova McKinzy hopes to see his unit apply when they get the chance to mix it up with the Cougars. The sophomore linebacker believes the defense isn’t that far away as long as it stays healthy, since he’s seen his teammates “progressing” every practice.

“We’ve all got to stay consistent and do a lot of working out on our own,” he said. “Overall, I think we’re doing better. Now it’s got to carry over to the game field.”

Notes

Hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett, who is dealing with a foot sprain, did not practice Tuesday. “I hope he’s close,” Malzahn said. “We’re hoping we’re getting him back by next week.” … Malzahn was terse when asked if he had ever shared information with Leach. “No, I haven’t,” he said. … Marshall’s newfound leadership has continued to please Malzahn, as Tuesday marked the third day he repped with the first-team offense as the unquestioned starter at quarterback. “Since we’ve named him the starter he’s been a lot more urgent,” Malzahn said. “He’s taken more of a lead, and the offensive guys are listening to him. That’s very important.”