1 Stop the run. It’s no secret that Auburn coach Gus Malzahn wants to establish the run to set up the pass, but quarterback Nick Marshall won’t have to pass if the Tigers, led by running back Tre Mason, are able to move the ball effectively on the ground. WSU had some success against the run last season, particularly when it stifled Stanford and star running back Stepfan Taylor. And most of the players who comprised the Cougars’ defensive front seven a year ago are back this season. If they can force Marshall, an unproven quarterback at this level, to throw the ball, they will vastly improve their chances of winning.
2 Take the heat. Yes, Mike Leach is correct. The Cougars have practiced on some pretty hot days in Lewiston and Pullman, so the temperature itself shouldn’t be anything shocking to WSU come tonight. But the humidity could be an issue. The air is considerably thicker in Auburn than it is in eastern Washington. How well-conditioned are the Cougars? We’ll find out in this one.
3 Protect the quarterback. Auburn’s defense had a lot of trouble stopping pretty much anything last season, but here’s the rub: The Tigers’ defensive line is stocked with juniors and seniors, so WSU’s still-young offensive line will be tested early and often. Any kind of consistent pass rush will make it difficult for quarterback Connor Halliday to progress through his reads. Elliott Bosch, Gunnar Eklund, Rico Forbes and Co. need to give Halliday time to throw.
4 Run the ball (at least a little). There won’t be anyone on the WSU sideline tonight who doesn’t believe the Cougars are more capable of rushing the football this year than they were in 2012. A season opener on the road against an SEC team with SEC size and SEC speed will serve as a pretty stiff test of that belief. Running backs coach Jim Mastro said Marcus Mason will likely get the start, but expect plenty of Teondray Caldwell and Jeremiah Laufasa, too. Their efforts will also be important in pass-blocking.