AUBURN, Ala. – There should no longer be any question about Washington State’s belief in itself on the football field. Not after the Cougars’ reaction to a close loss to Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium, one of frustration and lamentation that they lost a game they actually had business winning.
So few were any wide-eyed expressions during Saturday’s humid contest that it’s reasonable to expect a similarly confident approach will accompany WSU into next week’s trip to another one of college football’s storied locales: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the site of the Cougars’ Pac-12 opener at Southern California.
Sophomore receiver Gabe Marks was asked about the challenge of traveling into such a reputedly hostile environment in Auburn. He seemed irritated by the question, saying “It’s not like we play in Conference USA or something like that. We play in front of big crowds all the time.”
So it will be again this week against a USC team with a coach, Lane Kiffin, who is feeling no lack of pressure to succeed, and who can’t afford losses to teams like WSU that are expected to finish in the lower half of the conference.
That expectation comes from outside the program, of course, and not from the Cougars. Their response to adversity against Auburn – and there was plenty, what with three interceptions, a kickoff returned for a touchdown and a 75-yard rushing score from scrimmage – was to settle down, get back to work and try to get themselves back into the game.
“We played extremely hard and sometimes got reckless,” Leach said, but overall, “I thought we handled it really well.”
Still, WSU would prefer not to put itself in position where it must respond to misfortune at all. But the big plays the Cougars allowed – as well as a few overthrows by Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall that would have been sure touchdowns – must be eliminated before their next difficult road test.
So, too, must WSU’s offensive inconsistency. Connor Halliday was scripted brilliance on the Cougars’ first drive of the season, but too many of his 65 pass attempts were misguided, and there were at least three passes in addition to his three picks that also could have – the Tigers would say should have – been intercepted.
“It’s frustrating, and that’s on my shoulders,” Halliday said, “because we turned the ball over.”
USC was carried by its defense in a relatively unimpressive 30-13 victory at Hawaii on Thursday, though neither of the Trojans’ quarterbacks appeared to take control of the battle at that position. Cody Kessler started and completed 10 of 19 passes for 95 yards, a touchdown and an interception, and Max Wittek completed 5 of 10 for 77 yards.
Kiffin told reporters on Sunday that he’s decided which player will start against WSU on Saturday, but he won’t say who it is. If the Trojans’ game at Hawaii truly was an audition for both quarterbacks, it’s hard to say who won: Kessler had more pass attempts, while Wittek spent most of his time behind center turning and handing to the running back.
Of course, that was Auburn’s game plan, too, rushing for 297 yards while junior quarterback Nick Marshall slogged his way through a 10-for-19, 99-yard passing performance.
“We knew what they were going to do. We just have to stop it,” senior safety Deone Bucannon said of Auburn. “We could have done better. We could have had less explosive plays. We could have created more turnovers. We could have just done more little stuff to come out on top.”
Those little things are magnified on the road, a lesson the Cougars learned down south. Their trip to L.A. ought to offer further education.