(Butch Dill / Associated Press)
AUBURN, Ala. — Washington State left Southeastern Conference country stinging from a loss but hardly feeling outclassed.
The Cougars surrendered Tre Mason's 100-yard kickoff return, Corey Grant's 75-yard touchdown run and three interceptions in Saturday night's 31-25 loss to Auburn, but still had their chances late in the opener for both teams.
"We've shown improvement, but we still lost the game," Washington State wide receiver Gabe Marks said. "We should have won that game, they weren't better than us. We are a much different team than we were last year, but at the same time we should have won that game. We're not going to go back home and just be happy because we lost by a touchdown. We're going to go home (angry) because we lost that game."
Connor Halliday completed 35 of 65 passes for 344 yards and a touchdown but also was intercepted three times. Marks, meanwhile, caught nine passes for 81 yards.
Auburn's Robenson Therezie picked off two passes in his first game as a starter, including one in the end zone with less than five minutes remaining, for the Tigers (1-0). They had managed just two interceptions during last season's 3-9 debacle.
"We really needed it for confidence," Mason said. "I didn't have a doubt in my mind that we would come out of this game with a 'W'. Everybody was hungry, and this was redemption."
The Malzahn-versus-Mike Leach matchup of offensive innovators produced plenty of big plays and drama.
The Cougars (0-1) had two chances to tie it in the final five minutes, but Therezie's interception and an incompletion on fourth down ended the threats.
"I just underthrew it," Halliday said of his final interception. "I mean they were in cover 2 (defense), so there was a little hole right there."
Leach said his team was improved in the season opener, but the Tigers were as well.
"They are way better than last year," he said. "I mean they have had one top recruiting class after another so they are bound to have a great team. They always have a pretty good recruiting class and this one was no exception. I think Gus is doing a really great job of getting them circled up and playing well together."
Junior college transfer Nick Marshall was 10-of-19 passing for 99 yards in his starting debut with the Tigers. He also ran for 27 yards and made some plays after eluding the rush but didn't appear altogether comfortable early after having only preseason camp to learn the offense and win a four-man competition.
Grant, who walked on after transferring from Alabama, gained just 29 yards on seven carries last season. He outgained 1,000-yard rusher Mason (73 yards) and JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne (52).
The Cougars, also coming off a 3-9 season in Leach's first year, had two chances to tie it in the final 5 minutes. Therezie picked off his second pass of the game, this one in the end zone.
"I knew we needed to get off the field," said Therezie, who made his first start in place of an injured Justin Garrett. "It was a very close game, and we talk about facing adversity. I knew we were in it, and I needed to make that play."
Then, Deone Bucannon recovered Mason's fumble at midfield with 4:06 to play. Teonday Caldwell converted one fourth-and-5 with a 13-yard run but Halliday overthrew a well-covered Dom Williams on another a couple of minutes later.
Auburn ran out the clock after that.
The Tigers mostly stuck to the ground in Malzahn's no-huddle offense, gaining 297 yards on 45 rushes. Washington State produced 464 yards on 88 plays, most of them passes. Gabe Marks had nine catches for 81 yards for the Cougars.
Cody Parkey had field goals of 47, 26 and 42 yards for the Tigers.
The two teams traded big plays, including four touchdowns in a span of 1:56 in a first half that ended with Auburn ahead 25-21.
Halliday hit Bobby Ratliff for a 7-yard touchdown and Auburn's Mason sprinted down the right sideline on the ensuing kickoff. Then Halliday found Ratliff on a 53-yard gain to set up Jeremiah Laufasa's 1-yard score, one of his two TD runs on the day.
Grant sprinted to the end zone for his 75-yarder on his next play.
That gave Auburn more first-half points than it managed in any game against a team from a BCS conference last season.