AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn produced big plays and a win in opening the Gus Malzahn era, two things that were scarce last season.
Tre Mason returned a kickoff 100 yards and Corey Grant scored on a 75-yard run to lead the Tigers to a 31-24 victory over Washington State Saturday night in Malzahn's debut as the Tigers' coach.
Robenson Therezie also picked off two passes, including one in the end zone with less than five minutes remaining, for the Tigers (1-0). They had managed just two interceptions during last season's 3-9 debacle.
"We really needed it for confidence," Mason said. "I didn't have a doubt in my mind that we would come out of this game with a `W'. Everybody was hungry, and this was redemption.”
The Malzahn-versus-Mike Leach matchup of offensive innovators produced plenty of big plays and drama.
The Cougars (0-1) had two chances to tie it in the final five minutes, but Therezie's interception and an incompletion on fourth down ended the threats.
"I just underthrew it," Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday said of his third interception. "I mean they were in cover 2 (defense), so there was a little hole right there.”
Leach said his team was improved in the season opener, but the Tigers were as well.
"They are way better than last year," he said. "I mean they have had one top recruiting class after another so they are bound to have a great team. They always have a pretty good recruiting class and this one was no exception. I think Gus is doing a really great job of getting them circled up and playing well together.”
Junior college transfer Nick Marshall was 10-of-19 passing for 99 yards in his starting debut with the Tigers. He also ran for 27 yards and made some plays after eluding the rush but didn't appear altogether comfortable early after having only preseason camp to learn the offense and win a four-man competition.
Marshall, who completed just 2 of 8 passes in the first half, said he was nervous starting out.
"He calmed down after the first series," Malzahn said. "We probably had some drops early, and that didn't help. But the game slowed down for him.”
Halliday was 35 of 65 for 344 yards and a touchdown.
Grant, who walked on after transferring from Alabama, gained just 29 yards on seven carries last season. He outgained 1,000-yard rusher Mason (73 yards) and JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne (52).
"That guy's flat-out fast," Mason said. "He showed it tonight.”
The Cougars, also coming off a 3-9 season in Leach's first year, had two chances to tie it in the final 5 minutes. Therezie picked off his second pass of the game, this one in the end zone.
"I knew we needed to get off the field," said Therezie, who made his first start in place of an injured Justin Garrett. "It was a very close game, and we talk about facing adversity. I knew we were in it, and I needed to make that play.”
Then, Deone Bucannon recovered Mason's fumble at midfield with 4:06 to play. Teonday Caldwell converted one fourth-and-5 with a 13-yard run but Halliday overthrew a well-covered Dom Williams on another a couple of minutes later.
Auburn ran out the clock after that.
The Tigers mostly stuck to the ground in Malzahn's no-huddle offense, gaining 297 yards on 45 rushes. Washington State produced 464 yards on 88 plays, most of them passes. Gabe Marks had nine catches for 81 yards for the Cougars.
Cody Parkey had field goals of 47, 26 and 42 yards for the Tigers.
The two teams traded big plays, including four touchdowns in a span of 1:56 in a first half that ended with Auburn ahead 25-21.
Halliday hit Bobby Ratliff for a 7-yard touchdown and Auburn's Mason sprinted down the right sideline on the ensuing kickoff. Then Halliday found Ratliff on a 53-yard gain to set up Jeremiah Laufasa's 1-yard score, one of his two TD runs on the day.
Grant sprinted to the end zone for his 75-yarder on his next play.
That gave Auburn more first-half points than it managed in any game against a team from a BCS conference last season.
The Tigers were shut out 87-0 in their final two Southeastern Conference games.
"I'm just so proud of our guys," Malzahn said. "They went through a storm last year and they've really bought into what our coaches really have asked them to do.”