Cougars prepare to take on Tigers

Chris Shaw

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WSU’s Cougars will get an early taste of Southeastern Conference football Saturday when they travel to Auburn to play their first game of the season.

Both teams will look to redeem themselves after identical 3-9 records in 2012.

“We spent a lot of last year pushing effort,” Head Coach Mike Leach said Tuesday. “We’ve got better effort now… We played with a lot of guys who had never played a college football game. We’ll be playing with some that haven’t, but we’re predominantly a sophomore team but have improved between year one and year two.”

The Cougars will have an arsenal on offense to combat the challenges that the Auburn Tigers present.

Redshirt junior quarterback Connor Halliday returns as the leader of the Air Raid offense this year. He will have a slew of both young and old wide receivers to target, including freshman River Cracraft, sophomore Brett Bartolone and junior Isiah Myers.

Leach said he is impressed with Halliday’s leadership and progression in practice. Halliday is familiar with the receivers and has looked smart under center, he said.

This year’s version of the offense will try to duplicate the performance of last year’s group, which had the highest amount of passing yards per game in the Pac-12 conference with 330.4.

The Tigers will have to score against a defense that includes veterans like senior safety Deone Bucannon and senior cornerback Damante Horton.

Several returning linebackers and defensive linemen will look to bring Tiger’s junior quarterback Nick Marshall to the ground.

Marshall played as a defensive back at the University of Georgia before the school dismissed him, and then went to Garden City Community College, where he threw for over 3,000 yards and 18 touchdowns, adding more than 1,000 rushing yards and 19 more touchdowns on the ground, according to

The junior will now run Gus Malzahn’s fast-paced offense, which Leach is prepared to see.

“(Malzahn) spreads the field to run it first, but they are effective at throwing it,” Leach said. “He utilizes the space to create a running game and does a good job.”

Auburn brings in a close-knit defensive group this year to help Marshall in his debut and to clear the skies of the Air Raid.

“Everybody is confident in each other,” junior cornerback Jonathon Mincy said on Auburn’s website. “We can look over to the next guy beside us and know this person is ready to go to war with us. That’s something you look for as a team, just that chemistry and bond with each other.”

However, the Tigers will likely play without senior defensive end Dee Ford, who led the team last season with six sacks and is suffering from a knee injury.

The Cougars have historically done well in season openers, with a 69-43-5 record, while Auburn is 92-26-2 in season openers.

The Tigers also have one win over WSU in their only meeting, 40-14 in 2006.

The game starts at 4 p.m. and will air on ESPNU as well as the Washington State IMG College Sports Network.