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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Blanchette: Cougs show improvement, but still lose

AUBURN, Ala. – Have to admit, even bludgeoned by incessant hype, there is some cachet to this SEC stuff.

Take Auburn. Even with the beloved street-corner oaks poisoned, mourned and finally chopped into key chains and souvenirs, this place is still a-drip with college football’s treacly traditions – the hedges and the bells and the drug-store lemonade. And yes, the scary looking bird that has more on-time departures and arrivals than any of the airlines that ferried Washington State fans here.

And not to disparage “Go Cougs,” but you have to concede it sounds pretty generic when the other rooting section is doing its fist bumps to “War Eagle.”

But then you realize both the Tigers and Cougs were 3-9 a year ago, and there’s no cachet in that.

Now, in the Pac-12 – for Wazzu anyway, given recent history – that elicits mostly a shrug.

In the SEC – for a program two seasons removed from a national championship – it’s cause for deep shame.

So maybe you’d expect Auburn’s relief to trump Wazzu’s disappointment over the Tigers’ 31-24 escape at Jordan-Hare Stadium. And you’d be wrong.

“We should have won,” said Cougar receiver Gabe Marks. “We’re all pissed off we lost that game.”

The should-have part of that argument has merit, though in fact for every killing mistake the Cougars lamented, the home team can cite dead-solid touchdowns being overthrown and its own collection of if-onlys.

“Nine out of 10 times,” insisted safety Deone Bucannon, “they wouldn’t beat us.”

Nothing wrong with rosy math. It’s just that you only get one crack at each of these things every season.

But the Cougars’ improvement from their launch under Mike Leach a year ago was undeniable, and it’s not just the scoreboard saying so. Against the Tigers, the offensive line that has the sofa-cushion coaches wringing their hands held up more than admirably, allowing a single sack (there was another on intentional grounding) after surrendering 57 last sason, and opening enough holes that the running backs scooted free for 120 yards. That happened exactly never in 2012. In fact, the Cougars’ seven worst rushing efforts combined barely totaled half of that.

The defense, well, yes, it surrendered 297 yards rushing to a team mostly helpless through the air. But the Tigers were 4 of 13 on third downs, another significant Wazzu gain. The 100-yard kickoff return and the 70-yard run that instantly negated Cougar touchdowns were something of a hangover from Leach 1.0, and previous software rollouts.

Still, in the end, a missed opportunity.

“It’s frustrating,” said quarterback Connor Halliday, “because it’s on my shoulders turning the ball over.”

Well, yes.

This is the thing about the Air Raid, or whatever Leach’s mad science should be called now that it’s been relocated to Pullman. The quarterback who throws 65 balls a game is going to need a margin of error, but mixed in among Halliday’s brilliant moments – like Saturday night’s opening drive, a crisp, efficient work of art – are others that are turning the palm-to-forehead into the Coug fan’s new secret handshake.

And it’s those picks that will keep these Cougs from being all they can be, air-centric as they are.

Halliday threw three interceptions on Saturday, one a tipped ball, another a foolish bit of desperation that the Tigers couldn’t flip into points.

But the killer was the end-zone pick with the Cougars on the doorstep of tying the game with four minutes to play, thrown at Rickey Galvin sandwiched between two defenders. After another splendid, just-short-of-flawless drive.

On first down.

“There’s a little hole right there,” Halliday explained, “and I just underthrew it.”

Too little.

That the defense got him the ball back for another stab at it was a happy circumstance, but it was almost as if that last turnover took it out of him. Halliday was 1 of 6 on the last series.

The trying-to-do-too-much Connor and the not-knowing-when-to-say-when Connor have been dissected in every medium, social and anti-social. No doubt there will be some nominations for backup Austin Apodaca this week, but frankly the last thing the Cougars need is to revert to the pulley system Halliday and Jeff Tuel endured for stretches of last season.

Halliday deserves the chance to succeed. But he also has to succeed.

An afterthought question in Saturday night’s post-mortem sought his opinion of first-year Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s new attack, and Halliday responded with his filterless candor.

“They ran the ball really well,” he said. “If they could find a quarterback, they’d be a top five team. They just don’t have a guy who can throw it.”

Except that guy won.

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