AUBURN, Ala. -- Washington State and Auburn are armed with innovative offenses and hopes that they won’t repeat nightmarish seasons.
Mike Leach brings his Air Raid offense against Auburn and the hurry-up, no-huddle attack implemented during the offseason by first-year Tigers coach Gus Malzahn Saturday night in the opener for both teams.
For all the on-the-field improvements that needed to be made, both teams also had battered psyches to repair after matching 3-9 records.
Malzahn isn’t sure what to expect from his players, who were pummeled by their final three Southeastern Conference opponents and didn’t win a league game.
“They went through a storm last year and I’ll be curious to see how some of those guys respond,” he said.
Neither team showed enough fight at times last season. The Cougars lost eight straight games but at least finished on a bright note with an overtime win over rival Washington for their only Pac-12 win.
Leach pulled no punches regarding his first Washington State team last season saying the performance of some players was “bordering on cowardice.”
An offense led by the quarterback platoon of Jeff Tuel (now gone) and Connor Halliday ranked ninth nationally in passing yards but still produced just 20 points a game.
Auburn turned to Malzahn to revive an offense that ranked 115th in total yards last season and mustered only eight touchdown passes among three quarterbacks.
Junior college transfer Nick Marshall, a onetime Georgia cornerback, won the chance to run the offense in fall camp.
“I think he obviously can do it,” Leach said. “He did it in junior college and they were impressed with him there. He’s a real athletic guy, which is exactly why he’s had the opportunity to play two major positions . Hopefully he doesn’t get it all figured out before we get to town.”
Five things to watch in the Washington State-Auburn matchup:
MALZAHN’S DEBUT: The offensive coordinator for Auburn’s 2010 national championship season, Malzahn has a proven track record with success in mentoring quarterbacks, including Cam Newton. But he inherits a rebuilding job after leading Arkansas State to a Sun Belt championship in his first season as a college head coach. Unlike the Air Raid, Malzahn’s system emphasizes the run as much as the pass.
QUARTERBACKS: Marshall is starting his first game at Auburn and is a significant threat to run. It’s unclear how much of the offense he’ll have at his employ with less than a month to master it. Washington State’s Halliday had four 300-yard passing games and 15 touchdowns last season but also was intercepted 13 times.
THE FRONT LINES: The Cougars allowed a nation’s worst 57 sacks and also ranked last in rushing yards per game (29.08). The Tigers were 74th in sacks and will be without both starting defensive ends from last season. Dee Ford is expected to miss the game with a knee injury and Corey Lemonier left early for the NFL, leaving freshmen Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson as perhaps Auburn’s best pass rushers.
GETTING DEFENSIVE: Sure, the offenses will get the most attention. Both teams struggled badly on defense last season and were among the nation’s worst in turnover margin. Malzahn brought in veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson with his 4-2-5 system to take over a defense that produced only two interceptions in 358 pass attempts by opposing offenses.
ON THE RECEIVING END: Receivers might be one of the strengths for Washington State, which has six players back who caught at least 22 passes. They’ll face an Auburn secondary with significant depth issues. The receiving position is a big question mark for Auburn. The top returnee, Quan Bray, had only 14 catches in 2012.