Can Cougs find red-zone and 3rd-down magic?

PULLMAN — Statistically speaking, offseason attention on Washington State has tended to focus on the woeful number of sacks the Cougs surrendered last season. But there are two other unsavory bits of offensive accounting that help explain WSU's 3-9 record: Proficiency in the red zone and on third-down conversions.

Comparatively, the 2012 Cougs were downright wretched in both categories.

They ranked last in the Pac-12 and No. 104 nationally in red zone proficiency (74 percent). And they ranked No. 11 in the conference and No. 115 in the nation in third-down conversion rate (32 percent).

So with the 2013 season opener now upon us, the question begs: Can we expect marked improvement in both of those statistical measures?

Given that the first game is in a locale known for humidity and rabid fans, it stands to reason that the ability to convert in those key situations will be especially challenging. Success, early and often, will be absolutely critical to pulling off the upset.

Anecdotally speaking, the answer to whether the Cougs will be improved in those two areas this season figures to be yes.

For starters, greater familiarity with the Air Raid should reap dividends. And so will a stronger, beefier offensive line.

But there's also the evidence collected from watching a month's worth of practices. I put a caveat on that word, evidence, for two reasons. The first is because the No. 1 offense spends so much time going against the No. 2 defense or the scout team. The second is because there is no other barometer with which to measure, even when it's No. 1 O vs. No. 1 D, than Cougars vs. Cougars.

With the qualifiers out of the way, here is the evidence:

The No. 1 offense looks controlled and confident when it lines up after third-down scenarios are blared out over the bullhorn. Down in Lewiston, during the first 10 days of practice, there was a mild unease in third-down scenarios.

No more. And this week illustrates it.

On Wednesday, both Connor Halliday and Austin Apodaca were sharp on third-down plays, converting multiple opportunities. By extremely rough count, the conversion rate was around 50 percent.

The day before, Halliday connected on five third-down situations where the offense needed more than five yards to convert. Again, by extremely rough count, that added up to a 50 percent conversion rate.

As for the red zone, the Cougs struggled mightily early on in camp. But those struggles have evaporated over the last couple of weeks as the maturing Halliday and bountiful receiving corps hit their strides.

Halliday not only has the luxury of tossing balls to a load of talented wideouts, but there's some intriguing size in the mix. JC transfer Vince Mayle, at 6-3 and 240 pounds, makes for a monster target. His physique and strength allow him to create space with cornerbacks when the real estate gets tight. In 1-on-1 sessions, Mayle overpowers DBs and finds ways to pull the ball down.

Isiah Myers is only 6-0, but he has outstanding leaping ability that makes him an interesting option in the red zone. And don't forget 6-2 Dominique Williams. He's athletic, has no qualms about jousting in traffic, and tends to catch the ball at its highest point.

On the ground in the red zone, head coach Mike Leach and running backs coach Jim Mastro have made no secret of their affinity for sophomore walk on Jeremiah Laufasa. Mastro has said he would be an excellent asset in short yardage and goal-line situations.

The Cougs managed only six rushing TDs in the red zone last season, which also placed them last in the conference. Laufasa is a difficult guy to bring down and pounds the ball between the tackles. He has a knack for finding the first-down marker and the end zone when presented the chance.

Right now, it's all conjecture, however.

Saturday at 4 p.m. Pacific Time (ESPNU) we'll start to have a better sense of where the 2013 Cougars are trending on red zone and third-down plays.

Based purely on the evidence available from watching Cougs vs. Cougs over the last month, the bet here is that they'll be headed the right way.

NOTABLE: Last season, Auburn's opponents converted on 45% of their third-down plays, ranking the Tiger defense 13th out of 14 in the SEC in that category.

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