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Auburn 31, Washington State 24: Plenty of good and bad, but winning matters most

Some old demons haunted the Tigers, and there were a few bright sparks. In the end, getting a victory in Gus Malzahn's first game was exactly what we wanted.

Michael Chang

Auburn didn't always look great during the Tigers' 31-24 win over Washington State Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium. In fact, there were some moments when the 2013 team looked a little too similar to the 2012 version. But, this isn't the 2012 version, and it was made evident by some legitimately good play and a few signs of good things to come. There's a long way to go, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Scoring summary

1st 10:43 WSU Jere. Laufasa 4 yd run (Andrew Furney kick)
12 plays, 75 yards, TOP 4:17 7 - 0
02:26 AU Tre Mason 8 yd run (Ryan White rush)
4 plays, 28 yards, TOP 1:17 7 - 8
2nd 08:02 WSU Bobby Ratliff 7 yd pass from C. Halliday (Andrew Furney kick)
9 plays, 67 yards, TOP 4:31 14 - 8
07:46 AU Tre Mason 100 yd kickoff return (Cody Parkey kick)
14 - 15
06:18 WSU Jere. Laufasa 1 yd run (Andrew Furney kick)
5 plays, 75 yards, TOP 1:28 21 - 15
06:06 AU Corey Grant 75 yd run (Cody Parkey kick)
1 play, 75 yards, TOP 0:12 21 - 22
01:11 AU Cody Parkey 47 yd field goal
6 plays, 16 yards, TOP 2:04 21 - 25
3rd 06:51 AU Cody Parkey 26 yd field goal
9 plays, 44 yards, TOP 3:59 21 - 28
04:18 WSU Andrew Furney 43 yd field goal
9 plays, 39 yards, TOP 2:33 24 - 28
4th 09:07 AU Cody Parkey 42 yd field goal
12 plays, 61 yards, TOP 5:27 24 - 31

What went right?

The running game was just fine

We always knew that with a new quarterback and unproven receivers, Auburn's rushing attack would have to carry the offense. That certainly turned out to be the case, and the Tigers' backfield was up to the challenge. Forty-five runs netted 297 yards, an average of 6.6 yards per carry, and two touchdowns. Corey Grant was the star as the speed back, but Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne had some nice gains, as well. Nick Marshall was wasn't a game-changer carrying the ball, but his ability to run opened up the offense a little bit more. The offensive line wasn't dominating the Cougars across the ball, but it played well enough to open up some holes.

The secondary made some plays

As everyone already knows, Auburn only intercepted two passes during the entire 2012 season. Saturday, night the Tigers bested that number and picked off three Connor Halliday throws. Washington State moved the ball through the air and picked up a bunch of passing yards, but we knew that was going to happen. Even last year when the Cougars went 3-9, they averaged 330 passing yards per game. Auburn gave up way too many underneath throws, but that's likely because the Tigers' DBs were prepared for defending vertical routes all night -- after the game, Halliday said he'd never seen safeties line up as deep as Auburn's. In the end, Washington State's QB racked up 344 passing yards, but he only had one touchdown and really, one big play on the vert. On most intermediate and deeper throws, the defensive backs were in good coverage on Wazzu receivers, and on all three INTs, Robenson Therezie and Joshua Holsey went up and made a play on the ball at its highest point. Basically, the secondary looked like a much more well coached unit than what we saw during the Gene Chizik era. That's a welcome development.

Special teams were pretty special

Cody Parkey missed one 50-yard field goal, but aside from that, the Tigers had a great night kicking and returning. Parkey made three field goals from 47, 26 and 42 yards, was 2-for-2 on extra points, and five of his seven kickoffs went for touchbacks. Steven Clark punted five times, averaging 41.9 yards, and he pinned Wazzu inside its own 20 three times while not allowing a return. Chris Davis only had one opportunity to return a punt, and he picked up 19 yards. Mason returned a first-half kickoff 100 yards for a score. And after the Tigers' first touchdown, Auburn spread out for the kick/go-for-2 option. Ryan White liked what he saw, took the snap and made his way into the end zone.

The coaching staff showed intensity

Remember 2012? If you've blacked out of your mind, we don't blame you. But if you do remember it, you'll likely remember plenty of lackluster play and individual mistakes. On the sidelines, Chizik and his coaching staff didn't seem all that upset with the issues on the field. Sure, the coaches would talk to players after mistakes, but it was all all a little too calm. There was no fire. Saturday night, Malzahn proved he isn't that kind of coach. When Auburn made a mistake, especially on offense, he was quite visibly upset, and he let his players know. That has to be a good thing.

Auburn won

After last year, we'll take a victory any way we can get it. Auburn held on late when Washington State had a couple of chances to drive for a game-tying touchdown. In a game that was always in the balance, one couldn't help but think last year's team would have found a way to lose it. Winning is a nice step forward.

What went wrong?

Looking at the stat sheet, it's hard to tell Auburn won

The raw numbers: Washington State held advantages in total yards (464-396), total plays (88-65), first downs (28-16) and time of possession (31:27-28:33). While that last stat doesn't matter all that much thanks to Malzahn's hurry-up offense, the rest of the numbers were pretty ugly. The Tigers deserve credit for overcoming their deficiencies and finding a way to win, but in SEC play, a stat sheet like that will almost always accompany a loss.

The passing game needs work -- a lot of work

Marshall's final line: 10-for-19, 99 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs. The good news is that Auburn's quarterback didn't force any throws into coverage or make any bad decisions. The bad news is that when he was passing farther than 10 yards down the field, he had no touch and couldn't hit a receiver. However, it wasn't all Marshall's fault. His receivers didn't appear to be running great routes, and a few drops cost really hurt. In Marshall's defense, it was his first start, and he admitted that he was nervous at the beginning of the game. But if the passing game doesn't get much better in a hurry, opposing defenses will be able to key on the run and shut down Auburn's offense.

The defensive line was mostly lackluster

Aside from true freshman Montravius Adams, Auburn's linemen rarely got into the Washington State backfield, and they were mostly dominated by the Cougars' suspect O-line. Looking at the box score, the stats for the interior linemen -- a problem spot over the last couple of years -- were particularly bad. Angelo Blackson, Ben Bradley and Gabe Wright combined for three tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack. They rarely pressured Halliday, giving the QB plenty of time to pick apart Auburn's secondary. Against the run, the line was particularly bad. Washington State was the worst running team in FBS last season, averaging 29 yards per game, and the Cougs netted 120 yards against the Tigers. Yes, Auburn was focused almost exclusively on the pass, but those rushing yards are a big red flag.

Wanted: linebackers

Linebacker play was just as bad as it was in 2013. Jake Holland, who earned the starting job in the middle, was awful, consistently missing tackles and getting blocked out of plays. Kris Frost was maybe a little better, but he struggled, as well. On the outside, Cassanova McKinzy was pretty much anonymous, making one tackle. It was all pretty ugly, and as long as Auburn doesn't have competent LBs, the Tigers won't have good defense as a whole.

Three stars

Robenson Therezie, Star

7 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 pass breakup

Therezie was Auburn's best player on defense. He was all over the field, performed well in coverage, and made a critical fourth-quarter interception in the end zone. Starting in place of the injured Justin Garrett, Therezie proved he can fill in just fine, and he really needs to be on the field as often as possible.

Corey Grant, RB

9 carries, 146 yards, 1 TD, 16.2 yds/rush

In the previous four years, Auburn had Onterio McCalebb as a major home-run threat in the backfield. O-Mac is gone, but Grant proved the Tigers still have the threat. He was electric every time he touched the ball, and his 75-yard scoring run was reminiscent of McCalebb's game-winning TD against LSU in 2010.

Montravius Adams, DT

2 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry

Of the three five-star freshmen defensive lineman, Adams figured to get the least amount of playing time Saturday. But ends Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel mad a much smaller impact than their tackle classmate. As previously stated, Auburn's interior linemen struggled, but Adams was the exception, and when he was in the game, the Tigers were able to get much more pressure on Halliday. He may have earned a starting job, and it's pretty clear that he's going to be a standout on defense.

Bottom line

The Gus Malzahn era is upon us, and it started with a win. There is work to do, but it's hard to expect an immediate turnaround after a 3-9 season. Once Marshall gets a little more comfortable in the offense and the playbook expands, the Tigers should be able to move the ball consistently and score plenty of points. On defense, it may take a little more time. After all, the new coaching staff has to undo all of the bad habits learned during Chizik's reign, and that doesn't happen overnight. But a lot of good individual play, especially in the secondary, shows that the new staff is on the right track. But even with some shaky play, the D held Washington State to just three second-half points and pitched a shutout in the fourth quarter. That's a statement.

Auburn is 1-0, and while there will be some growing pains, the future looks bright. Fans should be pretty happy with that.

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