And so it begins. Saturday afternoon, the Cougars will begin their quest for redemption against Auburn on the Tigers' home turf. After a string of success, the Cougars experienced tremendously frustrating losing seasons in 2004 and 2005. Reasons for those bad seasons can be easily found – disastrous injuries, off-field tragedy, on and on – but the fact remains: it was two bad seasons with no bowl game. A third losing season in a row will negatively impact Cougar recruiting and also have a negative impact on everything from fund raising to game attendance to the future of this coaching staff. The demons of the past two years need to be exorcised, and the effort begins Saturday at 4:45 PST.
Auburn is ranked as high as fourth in the polls. The Cougs, meanwhile, are picked in the bottom half of the Pac-10 and have no national respect. Not surprising. Auburn has what looks to be a talented and strong team, while after 2004 and 2005 the Cougars will need to earn respect. This will be a tough game, and not just because Auburn's a good team. The win-loss record of teams having to travel three time zones to play is pretty heavy on the losses and while the Cougars will be used to any heat they encounter, the humidity will be something new and can sap energy and endurance. Still, this is a better team than last season even with the rash of injuries that has marked August practice. It's a season opener. The Cougs have some weapons and if the ball bounces the right way a time or two – for once – WSU has a chance to come home with a major win. Here's CougZone's Keys to the Game:
1) Pass coverage: Pass coverage – or lack thereof – killed the Cougars last season. When you score over thirty points per game, you oughtta win some. To hopefully fix the problem, the Cougs brought in not one, not two, but three JC cornerbacks. Still, the players who will start were already in Pullman. Don Turner has looked much improved in all respects after struggling last season, and Tyron Brackenridge has returned after being academically ineligible in 2005. Auburn expects WSU to stack up against the run – so they may try and throw. Limiting the Tiger passing game would keep them on the ground and one dimensional, allowing the Cougs to do what Auburn expects – stack up on the run.
2) The kicking game: One of the great battles of August was between Loren Langley and Romeen Abdollmohammadi for the starting placekicking spot. Both have plenty of leg, but Langley has struggled with the mental side of things after slumping badly late last season and Abdollmohammadi has practically zero game experience in college or high school. It came right down to the wire and in the end the coaches, well, punted. With a spot opened up due to injury to Fevaea'i Ahmu, WSU will take both kickers and make a game time decision. This game could come down to a kick - WSU can not afford any missed scoring opportunities in this one. The Cougars are also breaking in a new punter in Darryl Blunt. After transferring in from Portland State, Blunt has shown a huge kicking leg and could step right in where Kyle Basler left off. Still, this will be a big stage to make a first appearance and the Cougs need Blunt to handle the pressure.
3) Defensive end: Injuries battered this position in August, culminating with the loss of starter Matt Mullenix with a torn ACL. Backup Lance Broadus has been moved into Mullenix's spot on the depth. Broadus saw some quality game time last year, but was expected to backup Mkristo Bruce as more of a pass rusher than run stopper. Broadus is light for the spot – listed in the teens, Broadus claims to be up to around 225. He'll need every pound of that as he can expect Auburn to come right at him hard. Broadus must do at least a solid job. If he is unable to be effective, Auburn will go over and around him with a strong rushing game while freeing up the manpower to neutralize Bruce on the other side.