AUBURN, Ala. — Washington State under coach Mike Leach will never engage in a smash-mouth, grind-it-out game with anybody, let alone a team like Auburn that prides itself on how it rushes the football.
And while Auburn’s 297 yards rushing on Saturday night was the key to its 31-24 victory over the Cougars, it was WSU’s output in that category that was probably more surprising — and pleasantly so, at least for the Cougars.
The Cougars rushed the ball 23 times for 120 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per carry while reaching a total that amounted to more than one-third of their combined effort in 2012.
It wasn’t any one back carrying the load, either.
Teondray Caldwell led the team with 53 yards. Marcus Mason added 43, and Jeremiah Laufasa kicked in 10 yards on five carries — two of them for touchdowns.
Heck, even quarterback Connor Halliday, who spent much of last season as a sack victim, scrambled here and there to chip in 14 yards.
And the Cougars were able to run the ball in critical situations, such as Laufasa’s two goal-line scoring forays and a late fourth-and-5 converted via a draw to Caldwell.
“We’ve improved, and that was a byproduct of that,” said Leach.
“They were doing some shifting and stuff like that,” said senior center Elliott Bosch, “so we made an adjustment early and we were able to block it up correctly later on.”
WSU didn’t substitute any offensive linemen, playing the same group of Bosch, tackles Rico Forbes and Gunnar Eklund, and guards Joe Dahl and John Fullington that has comprised the first-team unit since camp began on Aug. 2.
They fared considerably better in pass protection, too, allowing only two sacks — Halliday was penalized once for intentional grounding— and generally giving the junior quarterback more time to throw. WSU allowed 57 sacks in 12 games a year ago.
“That was a big goal for us, to get that (sack) number down,” Bosch said. “When they weren’t blitzing and they were only sending four, we should be able to give him all day.”
There appeared to be one injury of note for WSU. Senior cornerback Nolan Washington left the game early in the second quarter and was replaced by senior Anthony Carpenter.
Washington was seen sitting on a training table behind the line of WSU players on the sideline. His left forearm appeared to be in a soft wrap.
Carpenter exited later, too, replaced by true freshman Daquawn Brown. It was not immediately clear if Carpenter’s absence was health-related.
Leach doesn’t discuss injuries, so Washington’s status isn’t known.
HALLIDAY IMPRESSED WITH AUBURN RUN GAME
Halliday was highly complimentary of first-year Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s run-heavy, hurry-up offense. But not of Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall, who threw for just 99 yards and completed 10 of his 19 attempts.
“They ran the ball real, real, real well,” Halliday said. “If they could find a quarterback, they’d be a top five team in the nation. They just don’t have a guy who can throw it. That running game was something very, very impressive.”
Senior safety Deone Bucannon delivered the hit of the day on Auburn running back Corey Grant, planting him with what appeared to be a clean blow on a rush inside the 10-yard line in the third quarter.
But Bucannon was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
When asked about the penalty, Bucannon began to respond: “I don’t really know. I thought it was a legal hit. I didn’t really see it but like I said, I think they saw some extracurricular, and that’s on me.”
He was then interrupted by Leach, who instructed Bucannon not to answer another question from the reporter who inquired about the penalty.
Of the play in question, Leach said only: “You saw the game. You’ll have to evaluate that. There’s other instances that you can check out and make your own opinion.”