AUBURN, Ala. — Twenty-five hundred miles from Pullman, in a Southeastern sauna with 85,095 crammed in, the Mike Leach regime might just have taken flight here Saturday night.
No, Washington State didn’t beat Auburn. But it engaged the Tigers in a dogfight, WSU’s scalpel to Auburn’s sledgehammer, and it had a chance to draw even twice in the last five minutes before succumbing, 31-24.
“We don’t believe in moral victories,” insisted WSU safety Deone Bucannon.
An admirable stance, but sometimes you have to walk before you can run. What this was, was WSU’s best showing on the road against a nonconference opponent with some chops in a decade — since Bill Doba’s first team lost in overtime at Notre Dame in 2003, followed by a resounding win at Colorado.
It was there for WSU, which had three different first-half leads, and it was there in the fourth quarter, when Connor Halliday drove the Cougars inside the Auburn 10, down seven, before throwing an interception in the end zone. Even at that, WSU had one final stab, but turned it over on downs on a pretty lamentable series inside the Tigers’ 30.
“I feel that’s one we let get away,” said WSU middle linebacker Darryl Monroe.
It was a battle of 3-9 teams of a year ago, but on slightly different trajectories. WSU is a year into adapting to Leach’s ways, while Auburn launched the Gus Malzahn regime on this night with a roster that Leach assessed as better than 3-9 might reflect.
“They’ve had one top-five recruiting class after the next, so they’re bound to be pretty good,” he said.
The Cougars threw the first punch, they just never could land a last one. They drove for a touchdown on their first series, walk-on Jeremiah Laufusa mashing it over from the 4-yard line, with the pile moving forward. WSU would click for 120 rushing yards, compared to its 29-yards-per-game average of 2012.
They swore the crowd nor the beastly humidity mattered, but they had to be chagrined not to have more to show for their effort at halftime, when they trailed 25-21. There were five lead changes in the first half, and WSU wouldn’t ever have surrendered it but for a 100-yard kickoff return by Auburn’s Tre Mason, and a 75-yard burst for a score down the left side by Corey Grant.
“I thought we played really hard the whole game,” said Leach. “The biggest thing that plagued us was turnovers, explosives (plays) and intangibles.”
From the start, it was a contrast in styles, WSU winging it 65 times with Halliday, Auburn pounding it, partly because JC transfer quarterback Nick Marshall (10 for 19 for 99 yards) is hardly a finished product.
“If they could find a quarterback,” Halliday said, “they’d be a top-five team in the nation.”
A game with six touchdowns in the first half saw none after halftime. Auburn had the 31-24 lead when WSU began a promising drive with 9:02 left. Marcus Mason’s 17-yard run down the left sideline set the Cougars up at the 8, but on the first play, Halliday threw into double coverage for slot Rickey Galvin toward the right corner and safety Robenson Therezie intercepted in the end zone.
“I just underthrew it,” said Halliday.
It was one of three interceptions, on a night when he went 35 of 65. Leach ascribed it to “just trying to make too much happen.”
So the Cougars packed for the long trip home. These were among the takeaways: They kept Auburn from getting two first downs on a drive until midway through the third quarter. They pass-protected pretty efficiently in allowing two sacks, a contrast to a nation-worst 57 last year. And they ran the ball, including a 13-yard burst by Teondray Caldwell on fourth-and-five inside Auburn territory.
Still, no reward.
Summing up, receiver Gabe Marks said, “We’re not going to go back home and be happy because we lost by a touchdown. We’re all (ticked) off because we lost that game we should have won.”
The big crowd, the stifling conditions?
“It wasn’t a big deal; you guys make it out to be a big deal,” Marks said. “We play in the Pac-12. We don’t play in Conference USA or something like that.”
On many occasions in recent years, you could have fooled a lot of observers. Not this night, when the Cougars took a step, even if they didn’t want to belabor it.