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Wildcats visit Pullman to face rolling Cougars with slim bowl chances hanging in the balance

Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez before an NCAA college football game against Stanford, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
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The Arizona Wildcats football team almost caught a break this week when Sean Miller’s basketball team took the floor for its first exhibition game on Tuesday.

Arizona, of course, is known as a basketball school, and the team’s return to the court would allow fans to gleefully turn the page and look toward a promising season that some believe could lead to the Final Four.

Then Allonzo Trier and Chance Comanche did not dress due to eligibility concerns and academic issues, respectively, and Ray Smith suffered a season and career-ending injury.

So, the football team, which is 2-6 overall and 0-5 in the Pac-12, is not off the hook just yet.

Rich Rodriguez’s squad is coming off a 34-10 home loss to Stanford in which Arizona QBs Brandon Dawkins, Anu Solomon and Khalil Tate combined to complete just 5-of-20 passes for 116 yards with one touchdown and one interception as a 17-7 halftime deficit turned into a homecoming blowout.

“That’s the hardest position to play in sports, period,” Rodriguez said this week. “There’s nothing that compares to it, and I know everybody wants to be critical — and there’s nobody more critical than me when I’m coaching them — but again, to play that at a high level, and to play that effectively, that’s tough.”

The coach went on to point out how it’s even more difficult when the pieces around the quarterback are constantly changing, which has been the case for the Wildcats, where injuries have hit them hard on the offensive line and at running back.

“Sometimes I think it’s comical when people are overly critical of any quarterback play when when they never coached or ever played it,” he added. “I think our guys competed pretty well. Certainly Brandon has made some plays — there were some things in the passing game, we looked like we were a little rusty; it looked like the quarterbacks missed some time in practice, which they have. Brandon and Anu have missed a lot of practice time, and that affects you a little bit.

“But they’re still good players, and they’re doing some good things. But we can get better there, and we can play better overall at that position, and I think we will going forward.”

Dawkins missed time due to a rib injury as well as a concussion, while Solomon had not played since Week 1 after suffering an undisclosed knee injury the following week in practice. Both have had success at the NCAA level, and Arizona will need at least one of them to play well this week when the Wildcats travel to Pullman, Wash., to face the Washington State Cougars.

The Cougars, who are ranked 25th in the nation with a 6-2 record (5-0 in the Pac-12), have won their last six games, a stretch that includes victories over Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and Arizona State. Mike Leach’s team has averaged 39.8 points per game this season while allowing 26.9.

Arizona, meanwhile, has scored just 24.1 points per game, which is second-to-last in the conference, while surrendering 33.1 points per contest, which ranks ninth out of 12.

Receiver Trey Griffey is confident the Wildcats’ offense will turn around, because receivers have been getting open and running backs have been hitting the holes.

“It’s just a matter of time before something big happens,” he said.

It would behoove the Wildcats to get their offense going this week as they face a red-hot Cougars team.

“They’re obviously playing with a lot of confidence; they’re executing better,” Rodriguez said of Washington State. “They’re one that’s a prime example, when they started off rough they didn’t abandon their system and go to something completely different. They just stuck with what they’re doing and started executing better.

“They’ve got a veteran quarterback, veteran wideouts, a veteran offensive line. So they just stuck with what they’re doing, and they all of a sudden started clicking and playing better.”

The quarterback Rodriguez spoke of is junior Luke Falk, who leads the Pac-12 in passing yards per game while throwing for 2,926 yards and 24 touchdowns against five interceptions. His leading receiver is senior Gabe Marks, who has caught 56 passes for 554 yards and nine touchdowns, though fellow senior River Cracraft (42 catches, 524 yards, 1 TD), sophomore Tavares Martin Jr. (41 catches, 491 yards, 5 TD) and junior running back Jamal Morrow (37 catches, 342 yards, 4 TD) are also likely to see the ball, which is thrown quickly, come their way.

“It is tough to defend,” linebacker Jake Matthews said. “I think that we just have to keep our eyes on the quarterback and break when he’s about to throw and swarm to the ball, so it’s not one-on-one tackling in space.”

In some ways, the numbers for Washington State’s offense are skewed because of Leach’s “Air Raid” attack, which has the ball thrown around the field pretty much all the time. What has separated this year’s Washington State team from previous incarnations, however, has been a willingness to run the ball.

Morrow leads the team with 388 yards and four touchdowns on 62 carries, though James Williams, who has run for 363 yards and four scores, and Gerard Wicks, who has 231 yards and eight touchdowns, will also tote the ball.

“They’re running when you give them the numbers to run,” Rodriguez said. “I think any spread offense, one of the main principles is to run and throw with the numbers, and they’ve been able to do that.”

The Wildcats have not.

Including this week, Arizona has four games remaining. After Washington State, the Wildcats will host Colorado before hitting the road to take on Oregon State. The season will wrap up in Tucson against Arizona State.

If the Wildcats win them all, they will go to a bowl game for the fifth straight season. Lose one, however, and the season will end with the Territorial Cup.

It’s not an ideal position to be in, but that’s where they’re at.

“I think we’ve just got to win one at a time,” Matthews said. “We can’t think about winning four at a time — that’s not possible. We’ve got to win one at a time, and if we win one, we’ve got to win two, and then three and four. So, we have this week, Washington State. We’ve got to beat them and then look forward.”


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