But this wasn’t about an attitude change, nor performance anxiety or complacency or any myriad clichés thrust upon the Cougars last season.
They belonged here, on this night, in SEC country. That much was proven by the final score. That it favored Auburn, 31-24, was the sole focus of every Cougar player who answered questions during the aftermath.
Also, that it didn’t reflect the way they played.
“I feel like nine out of 10 times,” said senior safety Deone Bucannon, his team’s leading tackler with 14, “they wouldn’t beat us.”
And there was Gabe Marks, whose nine catches for 81 yards led a WSU passing attack that helped the Cougars to 68 more yards of total offense than the Tigers: “We showed improvement, but we lost the game. We should have won the game. They weren’t better than us.”
That point will likely be argued by fans with enough time to pen novellas on message boards. But the score is the score, and Auburn withstood a trio of WSU leads — first 7-0, then 14-8, then 21-15, that one lasting until midway through the second quarter — to claim victory in this season opener.
All-headline junior quarterback Nick Marshall, he of the gaudy junior-college statistics, completed 10 of 19 passes for 99 yards and looked very much like a rookie.
But Auburn was buoyed by its 297 yards rushing — 146 by junior Corey Grant, including a 75-yard score during a touchdown frenzy in the second quarter — and for that reason, there will be sighs of relief on the Plains.
Their gasps were more exasperated early. WSU quarterback Connor Halliday led a 12-play, 75-yard drive on the Cougars’ first possession, which ended with sophomore Jeremiah Laufasa bulling across the goal line to give his team an early lead and put a scare into the 85,095 in attendance.
Auburn didn’t counter until later in the quarter, after the first of Halliday’s three costly interceptions, when running back Tre Mason scored from eight yards and a funky 2-point conversion play put Auburn ahead 8-7.
Then, the explosives. Another efficient drive put WSU ahead 14-8, but a blown assignment — or two, or three — on the ensuing kickoff allowed Tre Mason to zip to the outside and all the way down the right sideline, 100 yards in his wake before he crossed the goal line.
“We got out of position and lost contain,” said coach Mike Leach, who was otherwise pleased with his team’s effort.
“We didn’t think they were much of a field-return team, so they hit us and they surprised us with it,” Bucannon said. “We just need to make our adjustments and go into our meetings and figure out what we need to do to stop it.”
Still, the Cougars responded, Laufasa again scoring on a short-yardage rush, and that’s something WSU did much better today than it did last season. The Cougars’ 120 rushing yards equaled roughly 34 percent of their output in all of 2012.
But again, Auburn bit back, this time with Grant’s sojourn up the left sideline on the next play from scrimmage, and that score — coupled with a 47-yard field goal by Cody Parkey — gave the Tigers a 25-21 halftime lead that didn’t feel all that well-earned.
The Tigers didn’t trail again. WSU managed only a field goal in the second half, though Halliday led the Cougars to the 8-yard line, trailing by just seven points with 4:46 remaining, when he threw the most fatal of his three interceptions.
It was a pass to receiver Rickey Galvin that simply never had a chance, and Robenson Therezie stepped in front and snagged it in the end zone for his second pick of the day.
“I just underthrew it,” Halliday said. “They were in cover-two and there was a little hole there. I just underthrew it.”
He ultimately completed 35 of his 65 pass attempts for 344 yards, though he connected on just one of his final six attempts on WSU’s last drive, the Cougars refusing to capitalize upon an Auburn fumble that gave them the ball back at midfield with 4:06 to play.
Marshall’s arm did little to help the Tigers in this game, but they will likely settle for the knee he put into the ground on the game’s final play.
“We moved the ball on them all night,” Halliday said. “The only time we got stopped is when we stopped ourselves, turned the ball over, mental mistakes. They’re talented, but we outgained them by 100-some yards (passing). They let up damn near 500 yards of offense, so they didn’t play that great.”
But the scoreboard doesn’t lie. That is an inconvenient truth with which the Cougars must live.
AUBURN, Ala. — Washington State left Southeastern Conference country stinging from a loss but hardly feeling outclassed.
The Cougars surrendered Tre Mason's 100-yard kickoff return, Corey Grant's 75-yard touchdown run and three interceptions in Saturday night's 31-25 loss to Auburn, but still had their chances late in the opener for both teams.
"We've shown improvement, but we still lost the game," Washington State wide receiver Gabe Marks said. "We should have won that game, they weren't better than us. We are a much different team than we were last year, but at the same time we should have won that game. We're not going to go back home and just be happy because we lost by a touchdown. We're going to go home (angry) because we lost that game."
Connor Halliday completed 35 of 65 passes for 344 yards and a touchdown but also was intercepted three times. Marks, meanwhile, caught nine passes for 81 yards.
Auburn's Robenson Therezie picked off two passes in his first game as a starter, including one in the end zone with less than five minutes remaining, for the Tigers (1-0). They had managed just two interceptions during last season's 3-9 debacle.
"We really needed it for confidence," Mason said. "I didn't have a doubt in my mind that we would come out of this game with a 'W'. Everybody was hungry, and this was redemption."
The Malzahn-versus-Mike Leach matchup of offensive innovators produced plenty of big plays and drama.
The Cougars (0-1) had two chances to tie it in the final five minutes, but Therezie's interception and an incompletion on fourth down ended the threats.
"I just underthrew it," Halliday said of his final interception. "I mean they were in cover 2 (defense), so there was a little hole right there."
Leach said his team was improved in the season opener, but the Tigers were as well.
"They are way better than last year," he said. "I mean they have had one top recruiting class after another so they are bound to have a great team. They always have a pretty good recruiting class and this one was no exception. I think Gus is doing a really great job of getting them circled up and playing well together."
Junior college transfer Nick Marshall was 10-of-19 passing for 99 yards in his starting debut with the Tigers. He also ran for 27 yards and made some plays after eluding the rush but didn't appear altogether comfortable early after having only preseason camp to learn the offense and win a four-man competition.
Grant, who walked on after transferring from Alabama, gained just 29 yards on seven carries last season. He outgained 1,000-yard rusher Mason (73 yards) and JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne (52).
The Cougars, also coming off a 3-9 season in Leach's first year, had two chances to tie it in the final 5 minutes. Therezie picked off his second pass of the game, this one in the end zone.
"I knew we needed to get off the field," said Therezie, who made his first start in place of an injured Justin Garrett. "It was a very close game, and we talk about facing adversity. I knew we were in it, and I needed to make that play."
Then, Deone Bucannon recovered Mason's fumble at midfield with 4:06 to play. Teonday Caldwell converted one fourth-and-5 with a 13-yard run but Halliday overthrew a well-covered Dom Williams on another a couple of minutes later.
Auburn ran out the clock after that.
The Tigers mostly stuck to the ground in Malzahn's no-huddle offense, gaining 297 yards on 45 rushes. Washington State produced 464 yards on 88 plays, most of them passes. Gabe Marks had nine catches for 81 yards for the Cougars.
Cody Parkey had field goals of 47, 26 and 42 yards for the Tigers.
The two teams traded big plays, including four touchdowns in a span of 1:56 in a first half that ended with Auburn ahead 25-21.
Halliday hit Bobby Ratliff for a 7-yard touchdown and Auburn's Mason sprinted down the right sideline on the ensuing kickoff. Then Halliday found Ratliff on a 53-yard gain to set up Jeremiah Laufasa's 1-yard score, one of his two TD runs on the day.
Grant sprinted to the end zone for his 75-yarder on his next play.
That gave Auburn more first-half points than it managed in any game against a team from a BCS conference last season.
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