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August 28, 2013

AUBURN FOOTBALL: Leach, Cougars preparing for opener vs. Tigers

SPOKANE, Wash. — Washington State coach Mike Leach doesn't think the Cougars need to do anything special to prepare for the heat and big crowd expected when they play at Auburn on Saturday in the season opener for both teams.

The temperatures in Pullman have been as hot or hotter than temperatures at Auburn in recent weeks, Leach said this week.

As for the expected crowd noise, Leach said it can only get so loud.

"Once it's loud, it's loud," Leach said. "Once you need non-verbal communications, it's all the same."

This is Leach's second season at WSU, and expectations are a little more muted after last year's 3-9 campaign. Last year the Cougars opened at BYU, losing 30-6 in a game that seemed to set the tone for much of a disappointing season.

Still, there are some reasons for optimism.

The Cougars ranked near the bottom of FBS teams in scoring and rushing last season. But the offensive line, which gave up a nation's worst 57 sacks last season, is expected to be much improved.

"As inexperienced as we are, we're significantly more experienced," Leach said of the line. "We are improved."

In fact, greater experience seems to be the hallmark of this team, as the Cougars benefit from having played 17 freshmen last season.

Junior quarterback Connor Halliday appears to have seized the starting job after a training camp challenge from Austin Apodaca. He has a deep corps of returning receivers, which was bolstered by the additions of freshman River Cracraft and transfer Vince Mayle.

Halliday was a part-time starter last season, throwing for 1,800 yards and 15 touchdowns, and the Cougars led the Pac-12 with an average of 330 yards passing per game.

A question is whether the Cougars can mount an effective running game, which they have lacked for several seasons, behind veterans Teondray Caldwell and Marcus Mason.

Auburn finished just 3-9 last season, and has a new coach is Gus Malzahn and a new quarterback in junior college transfer Nick Marshall. Marshall threw for 3,000 yards and ran for 1,000 more at Garden City Community College last season.

A key to the game is how WSU's front seven can deal with Marshall in Auburn's hurry-up offense.

"The thing is he's a really good quarterback, but we are going to play against lots of quarterbacks this year and we have to get used to that," Leach said.

Washington State's seasoned secondary is anchored by Deone Bucannon, one of the team's best defensive players.

But the defense, which surrendered 33 points per game last season, remains something of a question mark.

Things don't get easier for Washington State after Auburn, as the Cougars travel to Southern California for their second game.

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