The method was effective as Halliday engineered a 12-play drive that culminated with a 4-yard touchdown run by Jeremiah Laufasa. It was difficult to envision a much better scenario after last season's dreadful 3-9 season when Leach could not settle between Halliday and Jeff Tuel as the starter and the running game was so anemic that the Cougars were forced to throw in several short-yardage situations.
That perhaps was the high point for Halliday, who completed 35 of 65 passes for 344 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Too often, he morphed back into the quarterback who won the job to begin last season, but ultimately lost it to Tuel through myriad mistakes.
None was worse than WSU's second-to-last possession of the game when the Cougars drove to Auburn's 8-yard line on a 17-yard run by Marcus Mason. Halliday then had four opportunities to tie the game with nearly five minutes left. Instead, he inexplicably forced a pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Robenson Therezie.
It did not clinch the game as a fumble recovery by safety Taylor Taliulu at midfield gave the offense a final opportunity to send the game into overtime. But it was their best prospect.
While Halliday accounted for all of the Cougars' turnovers, the setback cannot rest solely on him. WSU made too many mistakes to win on the road. There was Therezie's first interception – also on first down – in the opening quarter with the Cougars leading 7-0. Auburn translated that into an 8-7 advantage on an 8-yard run by Tre Mason.
After WSU twice regained the lead in the second quarter, they surrendered it on one play. The first came on Mason's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, while the other occurred when Corey Grant scored on a 75-yard run.
"I felt like later in the game it came back to haunt us," said sophomore linebacker Darryl Monroe during a postgame radio interview. "Those two critical touchdowns really came back to bite us."
THERE WERE PLENTY of positive developments, though. A cursory look at the box score indicates as much. Ten different Cougars caught at least one pass – a successful execution of Leach's Air Raid. WSU also had a couple of explosive receiving plays on Bobby Ratliff's 53-yard reception and a 29-yard catch by Dominique Williams.
And the Cougars showed they have a power running back in the red zone to finish off drives. Laufasa had two touchdowns during the first half. Behind Teondray Caldwell's 53 yards on seven carries, WSU finished with 120 yards on 23 carries. That is the most rushing yards in a game for the Cougars since they finished with 125 yards in 2011 at Oregon.
"All of the running backs were talking about it," Laufasa said. "The offensive line was much improved with opening up holes for us."
And, for the most part, Leach liked his team's effort and performance.
"I thought we played reasonably polished for our first game," he said. "We've just got to get better next week."
That begins with Halliday and his teammates eliminating some of their mistakes. When Halliday throws 65 passes – only Drew Bledsoe with 66 attempts in 1992 against Montana had more – some poor decisions are expected. But WSU, which has five Pac-12 road games this season and has not won a conference road game since 2011 against lowly Colorado, will need better if it expects to play in the postseason for the first time in a decade.
The next opportunity comes at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at USC. But similar to Auburn, USC is a College Football blueblood going through a transition process.
After the missed opportunity at Auburn, it is the second chance for a critical road win that sophomore wide receiver Gabe Marks relishes.
"That's not a homecoming for me," said Marks, who grew up near Los Angeles. "I'm not focused on that. We've got to get a win."