Cougars aim higher than respectable

There were plenty of good takeaways from Washington State's visit to Auburn last weekend. For one, the Cougars outgained the Tigers 464 yards to 394. They looked every bit the Tigers' physical match, playing on the road against the 2010 national champions.

The final score -- 31-24 -- was close, notable because the Tigers were 16-point favorites. If a few things had gone the Cougs' way, and perhaps the official were a bit tighter with pass interference calls, the result might have been reversed.

Further, Washington State coach Mike Leach liked his team's effort, something he didn't very often during his first season in Pullman in 2012. Perhaps the biggest negative during the Cougars' 2012 season was Leach constantly grousing about his team's effort and mental toughness.

"Everything starts with [effort]," Leach said. "We spent a lot of time on that last year -- coaches and players -- trying to get effort. We spent more time coaching effort than we did assignments and technique."

And yet Washington State's aspirations aren't to just be a tough out, a scrappy club that nips at you until the very end. Yes, it's an oft-repeated refrain, but the Cougars aren't that far way from playing in a Rose Bowl and winning 10 games three consecutive seasons.

It ain't about being respectable. It's about winning.

"There's a point," Leach said, "when you've got to take the game away from the other guy. I'd like to see some of that."

Up next is an even tougher road assignment: A trip to No. 24 USC at the Coliseum.

USC and Washington State haven't played since 2010. The last meeting was a complete disaster for the Cougars, a 50-16 beatdown in Pullman. That Washington State team would go on to finish 2-10.

Few teams are opening their season with two tougher games, but the Cougars aren't shying away from making this one important. They are embracing the idea there's a sense of urgency to win, not merely be competitive.

"We don't really have a choice," quarterback Connor Halliday said. "Going 0-2 is a tough way to start the year with the goals we have for this team. It's kind of a must-win."

The biggest difference on offense for the Cougars at Auburn was a respectable running game. A team that ranked last in the nation in rushing last year with 29 yards per game, had 120 against an "SEC defense."

The going will be far tougher against a rugged USC front seven, even it it is without star pass rusher Morgan Breslin. The question then becomes whether Halliday can outmaneuver a rejiggered Trojans secondary.

Halliday passed for 344 yards at Auburn, but he completed just 54 percent of his throws and tossed three interceptions. USC had four picks and seven sacks in its opening win over Hawaii. Haliday, who deserves credit for the running success because most runs are his calls, needs to tighten things up and make fewer mistakes, particularly against a defense with as much athleticism as USC.

"We still need to iron out some things when he tries to make too much happen," Leach said.

That said, Halliday still must attack. His live arm and strong crew of receivers are where this game should turn, though much of the national curiosity will be on how well the USC quarterbacks play against a much improved Cougs defense.

The opener suggested that Washington State will be better this fall. But the question is whether better just means respectable performances or a run at bowl eligibility.