AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn's season opener against Washington State on Saturday was in doubt until nearly the final minute.
But when Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday's fourth-and-five pass from Auburn's 27-yard line sailed out of bounds with just over two minutes remaining, the outcome was sealed.
The Tigers (1-0) had done just enough to hold on for a 31-24 victory to make Gus Malzahn's debut as head coach a successful one.
"They found a way to win," Malzahn said in his postgame press conference. "We're committed to getting better each practice and each game, and we are."
To say the contest went according to script would be a bit too easy, though.
The pregame thought was the Tigers would pound the ball on the ground while the Cougars would take to the air, each following their coach's preferred method of moving the ball.
On Saturday, Malzahn's scheme reigned supreme, as the Tigers' 297 rushing yards proved to be more effective than the Cougars' 344 passing yards. In an ironic twist, however, Washington State matched Auburn in terms of rushing touchdowns, with each team scoring twice via the running game.
And though the teams combined to put 55 points on the board, the second half was notable for its paucity of scoring. The final two quarters saw just nine points scored, all coming courtesy of each team's placekickers.
The pedestrian pace of the second half scoring was a far cry from the frenetic tempo of the opening 30 minutes.
"Our coaches did a good job of adjusting," Malzahn said. "But give (Washington State) credit. That's a really good team."
Things couldn't have started much worse for the Tigers. Washington State (0-1) received to open the game, and promptly marched down the field for a touchdown. The Cougars covered the 75 yards in 12 plays, capped by Jeremiah Laufasa's touchdown run from four yards out.
Auburn failed to match Washington State on its own opening drive, as the Tigers went three-and-out. The Tigers next possession was equally unfruitful, picking up just five yards before punting once more.
Needing a spark, a "Star" provided it. Robenson Therezie — pushed into the starting lineup in the place of starter Justin Garrett — came up with an interception on the Cougars' ensuing drive, helping the Tigers set up shop at the Washington State 24-yard line.
Four plays later, Auburn had its first touchdown of the season, as Tre Mason ran up the middle for eight yards, dragging Washington State defenders along with him into the end zone.
But the Tigers didn't settle for just getting an extra point: Malzahn wanted more — and the Tigers got it. Senior defensive back Ryan White ran it in for a two-point conversion to put Auburn ahead 8-7 at the 2:26 mark of the opening period.
As soon as the second quarter began, the game finally started to resemble the quick-strike scoring attacks both coaches desire. The lead changed hands four times, with two Tiger touchdowns covering 50 yards or more.
The first score went for double that, as Mason returned a kickoff 100 yards, the second such touchdown of his career and first since he had a 97-yard touchdown return against Utah State in the 2011 season opener.
Corey Grant scored on a 75-yard touchdown run later in the quarter, which was the first of his career.