For about the first five minutes of the game versus the Auburn Tigers, the Cougars looked like a brand new team. For the remaining 55 minutes, the Cougars returned to a similar team from last year. However, there were plenty of signs of optimism to go along with the signs of concern.
Signs of Optimism
Improved Rushing Attack
The Cougars registered 120 yard rushing and two rushing touchdowns on only 23 carries. This much better than last year's season average of 29.1 rushing yards per game. Although many Cougar fans would like Leach to call more run plays, it is nice to know the Cougars can run the ball with some efficiency.
Depth at Skill Positions
It was clear during the game that Leach believes in a lot his skill position players. Three different runningbacks registered at least five carries and eight different receivers registered a reception (10 total players had at least one reception). Gabe Marks lead the Cougars with nine catches and 81 receiving yards. However, Saturday night saw the return of old familiar Cougar faces from the 2011-12 season. Kristoff Williams, Bobby Ratliff and Rickey Galvin were key contributors to the offense Saturday. This was shocking as neither one of these players played a significant role last season. If K. Williams, Ratliff, and Galvin can provide support to Dominique Williams, Brett Bartolone, and Gabe Marks, the receiver core should not be a concern all season.
Signs of Concern
Too Pass-Happy with the wrong QB?
Connor Halliday threw 65 pass attempts. Leach loves to pass the ball but 65 times might be a bit excessive. Especially when the Cougars were averaging 5.2 yards per carry on the ground. In addition to the large passing attempt total, Halliday completed 35 passes and threw one touchdown and three interceptions. His completion percentage was barely over 50% this game and all of last year. Halliday needs to be more accurate with the football in order for the offense to work like it did when Leach was at Texas Tech. Also, the stats say Halliday had only three interceptions. I counted four other occasions where Halliday should have had another interception but an Auburn defender dropped. Halliday still shows the erratic decision-making that got himself benched last year.
Tackling Still a Problem
The Cougars were in a lot of great spots defensively to make a play, but when it comes down to it, the Cougars are still poor at tackling. On numerous occasions, I watched the Cougars make a hit but fail to wrap up and the runner broke the tackle for five more yards or a first down. Defensive linemen were also being juked around by the Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall to prevent sacks. Also, everyone will remember Deone Bucannon's massive hit but no one recalls the five or more missed tackles he had for trying to tackle a player high.
Running Lanes Wide Open
In addition to the poor tackling, the Cougars front seven were getting manhandled by Auburn's linemen. The Cougars gave up 295 yards rushing. That is an urgent concern. They allowed the three Auburn runningbacks to gain over 50 yards on the ground each; one had 146 yards on just nine carries. The Cougars need to clean this up otherwise USC, this coming Saturday, will run all over them. Also, let's not forget strong running teams like Stanford, Oregon State, Oregon, Arizona, and Washington still remain on the Cougars schedule later in the year.