Mike Leach invades the Plains.
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now to start previewing Auburn’s upcoming football opponents. The Tigers open the 2013 regular season at home, on August 31st, against the Washington State Cougars. Despite last year’s 3-9 record, and this team having to travel all the way across the country into August heat in Alabama, this game likely will be tough for the Auburn Tigers. The Cougars are led by former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach.
Last year was a departure for Leach, who never had a losing record in ten years at Texas Tech. By all accounts, it was a tough year. There was a quarterback controversy, and the team’s leading receiver Marquess Wilson left the team and accused Leach of abuse. All and all, 19 players left the team, or were dismissed since Leach was hired. Recent history does suggest that Mike Leach is a tough guy to play for, but his demanding demeanor likely means that the Cougars will be greatly improved in 2013.
Washington State’s schedule does them few favors, with only two mid-September cupcakes, and an otherwise tough slate. After playing at Auburn, the Cougars must travel to L. A. to take on the Lane Kiffen-led USC Trojans. Home tuneups against Southern Utah and Idaho follow, then the Cougs host a tough Stanford team. In October it’s at Cal, Oregon State, at Oregon, then Arizona State after an off week. November brings a road trip to Arizona, a home date against Utah, and an Apple Cup battle against Washington in Seattle.
Last year’s Washington State offense featured inconsistent quarterbacking. The team could dink and dunk its way between the 20s, but had trouble scoring points. The running game was abysmal, finishing last in the nation with only 29.1 yards per game. The team returns eight offensive starters, but lost its top receiver, plus quarterback Jeff Tuel to graduation. The Cougars return four of five offensive line starters, but only senior center Elliot Bosch was consistent last season. In addition to having the nation’s worst running game, the Cougars were last in the country in allowed QB sacks, giving up 57 of them. By comparison, Auburn gave up 37. Quarterback Connor Halliday played in nine games last season, and if the spring Crimson and Gray game is any indication, he’s improved his accuracy and decision making.
For those who thought Auburn’s defense was bad in 2012, giving up 340 points total, consider the Cougar defense. Washington State gave up 404 points! The Cougars transitioned to a 3-4 defense last season, and had the typical first-year jitters that defense seems to engineer. Most of the front seven returns, including nose tackle Ioane Gauta, who came on late last season, demanding double-team blocks from PAC-12 rivals. The biggest loss for the Cougars is linebacker Travis Long, who led the team with 9.5 sacks. The Cougars do a good bit of blitzing, and did rack up 35 sacks last season. However, it was feast or famine on pass defense, as the Cougars gave up 7.7 yards per pass. Auburn wasn’t much better, giving up 7.5. Judging from the spring game, it looks like this year’s edition of the Cougar defense will be solid against the run, but still questionable stopping the pass.
On special teams, Washington State returns both senior kicker Andrew Furney, and senior punter/kickoff specialist Michael Bowlin. Both guys were pretty good last season, and expect to have big senior campaigns. The Cougars were nothing special on returns last season, but did have solid coverage teams. The injection of freshman speedster Robert Lewis into the return game could significantly improve Cougar chances of breaking one.
Unit Matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Cougar offensive line: The main worry I’ve seen from the Auburn camp here is that the Tigers don’t have enough edge pass rushers. Some have said that the pass rush is senior end Dee Ford, and no one else. I’m not sure it’s a critical factor in this game. Mike Leach uses wide offensive line splits, and it’s very difficult to get a guy around the corner on that alignment. Pressure on those quarterbacks usually comes from breakdowns through the gaps. Look for Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to use a variety of shifts and stems up front to try and confuse the blocking schemes. The Mike Leach offense can be slowed down by getting in the quarterback’s face and forcing bad throws. Auburn will likely go with a tackle rotation of Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeffery Whitaker. Dee Ford, Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae will be the primary ends. The Tigers have depth beyond those six guys, but none except Ford have distinguished themselves, either. The starting Cougar line will feature from left to right, sophomore Gunnar Eklund, senior John Fullington, senior Elliot Bosch, senior Matt Goetz, and senior Rico Forbes. This should be a pretty solid unit for Washington State. These guys didn’t open many holes last season for the running game, and allowed a ton of sacks. However, much of the damage was due to the scheme, and quarterbacks holding the ball too long. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. Cougar backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are sophomores Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Neither has a huge amount of game experience, and it’s a concern going into the season opener. While the Cougars are hardly a threat to run wild, these guys still have to watch the draw and cover backs in the flat. We have no idea at this time how that will work out. They must also be a factor when called on in the pass rush. Washington State lost top runner Carl Winston (280 yards), but returns sophomore Teandre Caldwell (269). Senior transfer Daniel Jenkins will likely be a factor here, as well. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Cougar receivers: Auburn is surprisingly deep at corner, and will need good play from starters Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy to slow Washington State down. Leach calls a lot of short rub-off passing plays, and Auburn will have to be disciplined and tackle well. From all indications this spring, Auburn corners are tackling well. With the number of wide receivers Leach uses, expect Auburn reserves Jonathan Jones, Joshua Holsey and Ryan White to contribute also. Mike Leach put a lot of freshman receivers on the field last season, and it should pay dividends this year. Right now the starters on the outside at X and Z appear to be sophomore Dominique Williams (34 catches) and sophomore Gabe Marks (49). Look for talented newcomer Vince Mayle to make an impact here as well. The Cougars will move receivers around, so it’s quite possible to have slot guys lined up outside, or outside guys bunched near the line. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Cougar secondary receivers and quarterback: I’m lumping “star” Justin Garrett in with the safeties, because with the current state of the Cougar running game, I’m pretty sure he’ll be covering receivers in this game. This may be a game where one will see both stars on the field, Garrett and Robensen Therezie. Both have the speed to stay with wide receivers, and Therezie does have a cornerback background. Junior free safety Jermaine Whitehead has really come on this spring, so the real question is who will play strong safety. Right now, converted corner Joshua Holsey is atop the Auburn depth chart there, but senior Demetruce McNeal will return this fall and likely make a serious run. In this game, these guys MUST prevent the big play! Mike Leach likes to worry teams to death underneath, and when they start bringing safeties down into the box, he hits ‘em with his famous “Y-Cross” play for a score. Safeties come up to help with the pesky screen, and that Y receiver runs away from his defender across the field, and deep. Auburn’s GOT to be aware of that! Washington State has a roster full of capable inside guys. Starting at Y is junior Bobby Ratliff (30 catches), and at H is sophomore Brett Bartelone (53 catches, led the team last year). There’s depth and talent behind these guys. There’s a quarterback battle in Pullman right now, and a starter won’t be decided till fall. However, it’s difficult to see junior Connor Halliday not starting in the opener. He has experience, and redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca does not. However, if Halliday throws interceptions like last season (13 with limited starts) he’ll get the hook. Given Auburn’s questions at safety, and Justin Garrett’s inexperience, it’s Advantage: Washington State.
Punting: Auburn returns senior punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can’t be returned. Clark had 70 punts for a 39.8 yard average, but only 5 were returned, for a total of 4 yards. Washington State’s answer is senior Michael Bowlin, who punted 58 times for a 41.9 yard average, including 14 punts of 50 yards or longer. Opponents averaged 6.7 yards per return, on 21 returns. Advantage: even.
Kickoffs: Auburn didn’t score enough to generate many kickoffs in 2012, but when they did, Cody Parkey nailed 33 of 48 of them for touchbacks. The Cougars had a similar amount of kickoffs, but Michael Bowlin only had 18 touchbacks on 47 attempts. Auburn averaged a pedestrian 22.4 yard return average, and Washington State averaged exactly the same. When Parkey wasn’t putting the kickoff in the stands, Auburn gave up only 16.6 yards per return. The Cougars gave up 21.3. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn’s Cody Parkey was 11 of 14 on field goal attempts, and perfect on his extra points. Washington State’s Andrew Furney was 14 of 20 on field goals, and missed one extra point. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Cougar defensive line: Auburn’s starting A-Day unit of sophomore Greg Robinson, redshirt freshman Alex Kozan, junior Reese Dismukes, junior Chad Slade, and sophomore Patrick Miller looked dominant. In addition, the 2nd line did well against the starting D-line. We’ve already mentioned Cougar man in the middle Ioane Gauta, who was a force last season. He’s quicker than your usual 3-4 nose guard, and is up to 305 pounds this spring. Sophomore Xavier Cooper and senior Matthew Bock are currently holding down the top end spots. The key matchup here is Dismukes vs. Gauta. If Dismukes can handle him, State will have to send the linebacker corps en mass to stop the run. If Auburn must double team Gauta, it will severely limit the running game. The Auburn coaches have several times this spring singled Dismukes out as Auburn’s most consistent lineman. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Cougar linebackers: Auburn finished spring with a trio of dangerous running backs, and more are on the way this fall in the incoming class. Junior Tre Mason is a 1000 yard incumbent, JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne wowed the A-Day crowd with his power and agility, and junior Corey Grant is a threat on the outside. In addition, the Tigers will have bruising senior H-back Jay Prosch paving the way. The Cougars will miss Travis Long on the pass rush, but have a veteran, capable group of linebackers returning. The current depth chart lists junior Logan Mayes (26 tackles), junior Cyrus Coen (60), sophomore Darryl Monroe (80), and senior Justin Sagote (61) as starters. For those keeping score at home, that’s a total of 227 returning tackles from last season. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. Cougar corners: Auburn’s starters on the outside post-spring are juniors Jaylon Denson and Trovon Reed, neither of who have done much previously on the field. Backups Sammie Coates and Ricardo Lewis should add an explosive dimension when they sub in. The cougar corners have been through the wars, and suffered some battering over the years. They also really shored things up for the Cougars in the last few games of the season. Seniors Damante Horton and Anthony Carpenter have good speed, but Horton’s a little on the small size. Given Auburn’s lack of proven production here, and the unsettled quarterback situation, it’s Advantage: Washington State.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Cougar safeties: Auburn has some matchup nightmares as secondary receivers, starting with C. J. Uzomah and Quan Bray. Few safeties can keep up with either in a foot race. If a team puts extra corners in to shut that down, Auburn will run over them. Put in beefier safeties, and those guys will be wide open. The real question is who’ll pull the trigger for the Auburn offense. The QB competition is said to be neck and neck between junior Khiel Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace. Neither distinguished himself on A-Day. The race will become five-headed for a while when the newcomers arrive this fall. Senior Deone Bucannon is the leading returning tackler for the Cougars, with 106. On the other hand, I don’t think any defensive coordinator wants a safety to lead the team in tackles. Bucannon had 4 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions, so he’s clearly a capable pass defender. Senior Casey Locker is the other returning safety. He contributed 60 tackles and 1 interception last season. While I think Auburn might have the athletic ability to work on these guys, there’s an awfully big experience differential here. Advantage: Washington State.
Adding up the “advantages” give Auburn a close win in this comparison, but obviously not all matchups are equally important. The Cougars have the disadvantages of a very long road trip, a hostile environment in Jordan Hare Stadium, and an unaccustomed amount of heat and humidity to deal with. Auburn will have to deal with the first game jitters in a new system, particularly on defense. It will be critical for the Auburn defense to hang in there, and for the offense to get the upper hand on the ground. Obviously we don’t want any big plays given up, but it would be equally bad to have Washington State grind out first down after first down, while Auburn sputters on offense.
The home field advantage will be big for Auburn, as they will have been practicing tempo in the summer heat for months. The Tigers must stay in the game early, and use the situation to their advantage. A noisy, raucous crowd could be a big help as well, getting into the head of young quarterbacks.
Honestly, both of these teams showed a tendency to fold when the going got tough last season. Auburn suffered 6 three score or more losses, to MSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia, and Alabama. Washington State had 4, against BYU, Oregon, Utah, and Arizona State. The team that will win this game is the one that has made the most progress towards persistence and resiliency.
Prediction: In the noise and heat in Auburn, it’s a shaky day for all quarterbacks concerned. Auburn’s shifty power running game wears down the Cougars, and Auburn wins it 27-24.