AUBURN, Ala. — Visited again by disappointment and chances blown, Washington State’s football players were angry as they left this muggy southern town, that attitude reflected by the few who stopped by a stuffy room beneath Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium to talk about it.
But this wasn’t about an attitude change, nor performance anxiety or complacency or any myriad cliches 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 Cougars 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.
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 two-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 Mason to zip to the outside and 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. 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 seven points with 4:46 left, 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.
“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 WSU must live.