Much of the postgame focus on CF.C’s message boards was on quarterback Connor Halliday, who completed 35 of 65 passes for 344 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. While Halliday’s mistakes were glaring – his first interception set up an Auburn touchdown and the final one occurred on first-and-goal – Leach mostly was pleased with the redshirt junior.
“I thought it was good other than you can’t let the other team touch the ball,” he said. “Last year he was explosive, but really reckless. We still need to iron out some things where he makes too much of an individual effort.”
Leach noted some signs of maturation with Halliday, including his 11-yard scramble on third down. While he did not know Halliday would do that, he said it was a good decision.
“He’s a fairly assertive, courageous guy,” Leach said.
WSU outgained the Tigers 464-396, and Leach praised the Cougars’ effort.
“We played really hard and we had some opportunities we would like to polish up on,” he said, noting that the coaching staff had to focus on that more than other elements of their jobs last season. “But we had really good effort. That’s huge because everything starts with it.”
Ultimately, Halliday’s three interceptions and touchdowns surrendered by the Cougar defense and special teams, on a 75-yard run and kickoff return, prevented WSU from pulling off the upset.
“The disappointing thing was we couldn’t snatch it away,” Leach said. “You have to seize opportunity. There’s a point where you have to take the game away from the other guys.”
THE COUGARS WILL look to accomplish that at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at USC (TV: Fox Sports 1). This will be the first meeting between the teams since the Trojans’ 50-16 win in 2010 at Martin Stadium. That does not mean WSU is completely unfamiliar with USC as Trojans’ defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast held the same title last year at California.
Leach also has seen enough of standout Trojans’ wideout Marqise Lee to know “we have to keep a close eye on him.” He seemed less concerned about whether USC starts Cody Kessler or Max Wittek at quarterback.
“They both appear to be kind of similar,” Leach said.
He also thinks opening at Jordan-Hare Stadium will help the Cougars adjust to playing in the 93,607-set Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“I think we had a bigger challenge with that than we’re going to have all year,” said Leach, referring to Auburn’s crowd noise.
While some coaches prefer playing their nonconference games in succession to start the season, Leach said he does not mind playing USC in the second week. He also dismissed the notion that playing the Trojans early places more pressure on his team.
“We’re already giving full urgency to everything we’re doing,” Leach said.
Leach noted that this year’s team is confident, which extends to freshman cornerback Daquawn Brown.
“One thing that helps him as a freshman is that he’s fearless,” he said, adding that Brown could start this week. “Daquawn Brown isn’t afraid of anything. He’s going to be a really good player.”
Leach also liked what he saw from freshman River Cracraft, who caught three passes for 18 yards as the starter at the “Z” receiving position. Halliday seemed to target Cracraft more during the second half.
“I do think (Halliday’s) confident in Cracraft,” Leach said. “I think he’ll settle down and get better and better. He didn’t really have any of those first-game meltdowns.”
Touted junior-college transfer Vince Mayle was not among 10 WSU wide receivers who caught a pass Saturday, but Leach dismissed the idea that he has fallen out of the rotation.
“I don’t think he’s the odd man out,” he said. “The biggest thing is consistency. I think he definitely does some good things and we’re excited about him.”
The Cougars arguably had the worst running game and offensive line among Football Bowl Subdivision teams last season. Leach feels both units have improved significantly – WSU gained 120 yards on 23 carries on Saturday – but he still believes both the running game and line can improve.
When Leached was asked about the value of playing at USC for recruiting purposes, he quipped that he would rather play all games at Martin Stadium.
This will be his first time in the USC venue as a coach. When he attended Pepperdine School of Law in the 1980s, Leach said he went to a Raiders’ game at the Coliseum. He remembers a spectator ripping a jersey off a San Diego Chargers’ fan, who passed it up to others before it was thrown out of the stadium.
“I’m excited to be there,” Leach said. “It’s a great stadium. They’ve had Super Bowls and Olympics there. At least for Raiders games it was a pretty lively place. We’re looking forward to it.”