- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s no surprise that many experts are predicting a shootout between Auburn and Washington State on Saturday. The game features Gus Malzahn and Mike Leach, two of the more innovative offensive minds in college football.
“It’s exciting,” Auburn wide receiver Quan Bray said. “That’s what we’re looking forward to. Hopefully, it won’t be a shootout. On our part it will be a shootout. We’re trying to put up 70.”
Bray’s prediction of 70 points might be a bit of a stretch, but the game should feature plenty of points scored between Auburn’s Malzahn and Washington State’s Leach.
At first glance, the two teams might look very similar on offense. They both like to spread it out, and they both want to get it in the hands of their playmakers. However, each team runs a very different style out of their spread formation.
“We’re a run the football to open up the pass with play-action, and I know they’re a pass to open up the run,” Malzahn said. “But they’ve been very successful doing what they do.”
As for Auburn?
“A lot of misdirection,” Leach said. “They try to spread the field. They like a dual-threat quarterback who can run a little bit for them. A lot of screens, a lot of fake screens. We spread it out to throw it, they spread it out to run it, but both of us can do either one.”
The two coaches have never actually met. The closest thing Malzahn has ever seen to a Mike Leach-run offense came when he was co-offensive coordinator at Tulsa and the Golden Hurricane faced a pass-happy Houston squad.
The majority of Auburn’s team has not faced an offense like Washington State either. It’s quite a bit different than the typical SEC offense.
“I don't really feel like we have faced anybody who is pass-first,” cornerback Jonathon Mincy said. “In the SEC, every week you have a team that has an outstanding running back. It's a great task at hand that we have, and we're ready for it. We're definitely going to play a lot more man, get in their face and interrupt their routes.”
A year ago, Washington State finished just 3-9 in Leach’s debut with the Cougars but ranked No. 9 in the country with 330 passing yards per game. In all, the WSU quarterbacks threw for close to 4,000 yards and 23 touchdowns.
“We're playing an opponent that I feel like is going to be much improved,” Malzahn said. “They finished the year beating their rival Washington, which is a very big win. They've got the majority of their guys offensively and defensively back. That is definitely a concern.
“And then the fact it's the second year in their system. They've got a proven head coach who's won just about everywhere he's been, so we're expecting those guys to be much improved and a very good opponent for us in the first game.”
The expectations are high for Auburn’s offense as well, but the Tigers are having to break in a brand new starting quarterback. Junior college transfer Nick Marshall put up gaudy numbers last season at Garden City Community College, but he’s never directed an SEC offense.
Malzahn plans to play it safe with his new quarterback, but that doesn’t mean he wants to slow down the tempo.
“We never plan on starting out slowing things down because pace is one of our advantages,” he said. “We're always going to do what gives our team the best chance of winning.”
So will Saturday’s clash between high-powered offenses turn into a shootout inside Jordan-Hare Stadium? Leach isn’t so sure.
“It's tough to say,” the Washington State coach said. “First games are always funny that way. First games seldom unfold the way you expect. Both have quality defensive coaches on each team, so I think they'll be well-coached and we'll just have to see what happens.”
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