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Ryan Black commentary: Learn to live with Washington State victory, warts and all

AUBURN, Ala. — At least it wasn’t a loss.

That seemed to be the mantra in the seconds, minutes and days after Auburn’s 31-24 win over Washington State last Saturday. Was it overly impressive? No, saying anything contrary to that assessment would be a lie.

Judging from fan feedback after the game, Auburn’s supporters were expecting more. Far more.

More points.

More passing yards.

More sacks.

More contributions from the Tigers’ linebackers. (Nearly anything would have been better than what the linebackers produced last week, though, as they tallied only five total tackles, with four of them coming from Kris Frost.)

So on and so forth.

But the fans’ thoughts took the form of the coaching staff’s words earlier this week. Yes, in the immediate aftermath of the victory, all Gus Malzahn could do was praise how his team “overcame adversity” to start the season 1-0. As so often happens once coaches turn on film, however, that feeling changed the next time Malzahn addressed his team’s performance.

He tossed out phrases like, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” The offense was “below average,” he continued. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson got in on the act as well, admitting the criticism of his linebackers was justified.

“I thought their play against the run was B-minus, C-plus,” he said. “Got to improve.”

It’s not as if the Tigers were too far from the target in any area. Once Auburn faces more run-heavy squads than Washington State, Johnson said, the team will have a better idea of where its linebackers are at.

Or take Nick Marshall’s final passing stats: 10-for-19, 99 yards, no touchdowns. Barely solid, miles away from spectacular. If he had connected on just one or two of his numerous overthrown attempts, those numbers would take on a much more favorable hue. How does 14 of 19 for 213 yards and two touchdowns sound?

And while he brought nothing to the table as far as touchdowns are concerned, Marshall took nothing off of it, either, committing no turnovers.

If that had occurred, maybe Robenson Therezie could have come to the Tigers’ aid once more. The brightest of bright spots on defense last week, his pair of interceptions both came at crucial times in the game, and the seven tackles he collected set a career-high. Along with safety Josh Holsey’s pickoff, there could be few, if any, complaints about Auburn’s secondary.

The players in front of them were another story. Forget the linebackers for a moment — that’s already been beaten underfoot.

The scant production of the defensive line also came under fire, Montravius Adams’ disruptive debut notwithstanding. The line’s lapses should be excused to an extent, since it was without the services of the team’s top returning pass rusher in Dee Ford and a valued team leader in Jeff Whitaker. Once Ford returns from his knee injury — Whitaker’s status for the rest of the season is unknown at this point — the defensive line can be critiqued more harshly if it continues to be a non-factor.

All of the hand-wringing over Auburn’s narrow win seems to have obscured one major component: the other team. It’s understandable for fans to expect more of their team — they always want to see a dominating victory, if possible. But the reason for an expected laugher of a contest last week was based on nonsense. The oft-cited line of thinking? The Tigers should have won more easily simply because the Cougars went 3-9 last season.


If I'm not mistaken, wasn't Auburn also 3-9 last year?

The Tigers will be expected to show gains in every aspect — especially in the win-loss department — as the season wears on. But to expect perfection in the first game was a nigh-impossible standard to live up to.

Leave it to Johnson to put things in proper perspective.

“I think the question is, what it would have been like had we not held up our end of the bargain and come in with one more frustrating loss?” he asked. “You know, that was the most important thing that happened in my opinion the whole night — when we had a chance to slip, we didn't. They stood right in there and played hard and finished the game and got it done. And obviously, they'd had a problem doing that in the past.”

The Tigers came out on top, plain and simple. Juxtaposed against the losses that piled up so swiftly last season, they deserve some credit. That’s why Auburn has no reason to apologize for last week.

After all, an ugly win beats a well-played loss every time.

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