So the bottom of the Pac-12 may not necessarily be better than the bottom of the bottom of the SEC as head coach Mike Leach as posited this offseason. At the very least, a Washington State team coming off a 3-9 campaign was not better than an Auburn side doing likewise.
The Cougars have work to do to pull out of the Pac-12 Conference cellar in Leach's second year at the program's helm. That much was evident in Saturday's 31-24 loss, a near-miss that may have panned out different were it not for three turnovers and crunch-time misfires.
Equally apparent were the strides WSU made over the past year. The Cougars had an opportunity to return to Palouse with a win on the Plains because of measurable improvements in a few key areas.
WSU came out of the locker room from halftime last season typically to get run off the field. Leach's squad was on the wrong end of a minus-80 third quarter scoring differential a season ago.
The Cougars held serve with AU out of intermission, their defense buckling down to keep the Tigers out of the end zone throughout the second half.
WSU also avoided hurting itself with penalties, a persistent issue a year ago. The five times the Cougars were flagged totaled just 21 yards, 42 fewer than their previous per game average.
An offense that ranked dead last via the rush with just over 35 yards per game went for 120 against AU. No one ball carrier shouldered a bulk of the responsibility—the four rushed from five to seven times with varied results. A Leach-led offense is never going to pound the football on the ground consistently, but the 23 carries called Saturday provided balance missing from the offense through 2012.
Two plays in particular demonstrated the value of a capable rushing attack in Leach's pass-happy system. Marcus Mason broke a 17-yard rush to put the Cougars in the red zone late in the fourth quarter. On the next possession, Teondray Caldwell's 13-yard scamper on 4th-and-5 caught just about everyone in Jordan-Hare Stadium by surprise.
Following each of those potential game-changing plays, though, demonstrated a critical point of emphasis for the Cougars to fine tune.
Both drives stalled on poorly thrown Connor Halliday passes. His shot at the corner of the end zone after Mason pushed WSU into scoring territory was thrown into double coverage, with no Cougar receiver in the neighborhood.
On fourth down the following possession, Halliday lost grip on a ball that wobbled harmlessly in flight before hitting the turf and quashing the Cougars' rally efforts.
Halliday wasn't without his moments of brilliance. He passed for 344 yards, spread among 10 different receivers. Nine of his targets caught multiple balls.
Throwing 60-plus times as Halliday did Saturday will result in the inevitable mistake, but limiting the frequency could make or break the Cougars in the Pac-12 race—a race that begins in one week when WSU travels to meet USC.
In the Trojans, Halliday and Co. see a defense that made its Week 1 bones with four interceptions of Hawaii quarterback Taylor Graham.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter @kensing45.