- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUBURN, Ala. -- It was a mixed bag for Gus Malzahn in his debut as Auburn head coach Saturday. The Tigers won, defeating Washington State 31-24, but the victory didn’t come easy. There were plenty of miscues made by Malzahn’s team in its first game.
“First of all, I’m very proud of our team,” Malzahn said. “They found a way to win. I really felt like there was a lot of adversity out there -- we made a lot of mistakes, some of them critical -- but our guys found a way to overcome them.”
First, there was the good.
In the first half, Auburn had plenty of fireworks. Tre Mason housed a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, and just minutes later, third-string running back Corey Grant followed it with a 75-yard touchdown run of his own.
The Tigers might have found lightning in a bottle with Grant, an Alabama transfer. He wasn’t even listed on the roster prior to the game, but he rushed for a team-high 146 yards on just nine carries. Led by Grant, Mason and junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne, the Tigers racked up 297 yards on the ground.
“It was a great opportunity that coach gave me,” Grant said. “I just tried to take advantage of it and contribute to the team as much as I could. It’s great with the three backs. In the SEC, you never really have one featured back. You have to keep everybody fresh.”
The AU defense also had its moments. Despite giving up over 450 total yards to Washington State’s air-raid attack, it finished with three interceptions, one more than they had all of last season, and made key stops when they needed to late in the game.
Similar to Grant, Robenson Therezie emerged as the playmaker for the defense. The junior defensive back filled in for the injured Justin Garrett at the Star position and pulled down two interceptions, including one in the final five minutes to prevent a potential touchdown.
“I had to make a big play there,” Therezie said. “We knew as a defense they were going for the end zone right there. We communicated the right read, and I made a play.”
With the good, though, came the bad.
As good as Therezie was for Auburn, the secondary let Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday pick it apart for the majority of the game. Halliday finished 35 of 65 for 344 yards and a touchdown. As a whole, the defense missed tackles, looked out of place at times and surrendered big chunks of yards on numerous occasions.
“I think our execution [on defense] was average at best,” Malzahn said. “You’ve got to give them credit. They had a good scheme and they’ve got some good players, but our execution was average at best.”
Then there’s the case of new quarterback Nick Marshall. It was his first start since coming from junior college, and the nerves were evident early on. He was just 2 of 8 for 20 yards in the first half and looked out of sync with the offense. However, he settled down at halftime and finished the game 10 of 19 for 99 yards. He added 27 yards on the ground.
It wasn’t the debut Auburn fans were hoping for, but he showed flashes of his potential and more importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over.
“They were showing him a lot of different looks and trying to disguise some things, but he protected the football,” Malzahn said. “I think we had some drops early that probably didn’t help either, but he settled down and I think the game settled down for him.”
At the end of the day, Auburn is 1-0. It wasn’t perfect. There were plenty of mistakes. But the Tigers found a way to win and start the season off right for their new head coach.
“Overall, I’m very pleased with our team,” Malzahn said. “They found a way to win. We talked about our goals of getting better each practice and getting better each game. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re committed to doing that.”
4dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough