During a season in which the Arizona Wildcats destroyed No. 5 Oregon 42-16, it may have been the game that made the least amount of sense.
Washington State 24, Arizona 17. In Tucson.
The very Arizona team that would so easily dispatch of the mighty Ducks the following week stumbled to its lowest point total in a home game since Rich Rodriguez arrived the season before against a team that, suffice to say, is not exactly known for playing defense.
“We obviously got beat and there were times we did not play well,” Rodriguez said of last year’s defeat to the Cougars. “We had an opportunity at the end and we did not tackle particularly well, but they out-executed us and clearly were better than us on that day. I was a little disappointed in how we played, but I could say that about every game that we have lost. They clearly deserved to win that game.”
The good news is with a new season come new rosters, and this year’s Wildcats appear to be much better off than last year’s incarnation. Ranked 15th in the nation with a 5-1 (2-1 in Pac-12) record, the Wildcats head to Pullman to take on a struggling Cougars (2-5, 1-3 in Pac-12) team with their Pac-12 South title hopes still very much alive.
However, a loss this week would likely put an end to that, and to leave one of the more difficult places in the conference with a victory the Wildcats will have to do something they haven’t really done much of over the last few years: stop the pass.
Washington State senior quarterback Connor Halliday leads the country with 3,344 passing yards and 28 touchdowns, executing head coach Mike Leach’s ‘Air Raid’ offense nearly to perfection.
“He is obviously a very talented guy and can make a lot of throws, but their wide receiver crew is really good and they know what they are doing,” Rodriguez said, pointing to a group that has three wideouts with more than 50 receptions and 600 yards and 7 touchdowns, along with three others who have caught at least 20 passes this season. “All of the guys are valuable options whether it is four or five wideouts because the ball may go to any of them at any time.”
“Washington State has a lot of balanced receivers and some tall guys, but they also have some quick guys that are able to catch the ball,” safety Jared Tevis added. “This gives Halliday a variety of targets. Tackling is always a big part of the game, but it’s going to be especially important because of how many options he has. We need to make sure we’re tackling and definitely try to get that ball loose from the receivers.”
Of course, Washington State’s penchant for passing means they’re not exactly committed to the run, where Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks have combined to run 101 times for 438 yards and three scores, but that probably isn’t a concern of the Cougars’. Rodriguez said the Cougars will run it “just enough to keep you honest,” but everyone knows how that team tries to win games. As such, this game projects to be a poor matchup for an Arizona defense that has done a solid job against the run but struggled when teams take to the air.
Opposing quarterbacks have completed 64 percent of their passes against Arizona for an average of 278 yards with 12 touchdowns while being intercepted just four times.
“Anytime we face a passing school it’s exciting to have those opportunities to get interceptions,” Tevis said. “I look at everything as an opportunity, and with a team like Washington State who throws 60 to 70 times a game, it’s just another opportunity for us to make plays and get interceptions.”
“They’re a good squad especially since their quarterback has really improved, which is saying a lot because he had a great season last year. Connor Halliday’s throwing seems a lot more on point this year, but at the same time this will only give us an opportunity to show everyone what we’re capable of. They’re a good team so we have to go out there and give it our all. Last year, we didn’t come out with the right energy, so this game we’re starting out and firing on all cylinders.”
Starting fast has not exactly been the Wildcats’ M.O. this season. Arizona has tallied just 40 first-quarter points in its six games this season, and managed a total of 80 in the first half. That number balloons to 72 in the third quarter and 145 in the second half, though while it’s good to be play well in the second half, the disparity is a bit alarming. And against a team like the Cougars, a slow start could spell doom.
“We always seem to start fast in practice,” Rodriguez said. “I would be more concerned if we had more mental breakdowns, but it’s not that. It’s more physical execution, so I’m not too concerned that we’re not ready mentally. I want them to be intense and excited to be out there. I think it comes with experience.”
Things to Watch For
– Rodriguez said if the Wildcats had to play last weekend, chances are Nick Wilson and Terris Jones-Grisby would not have been able to go. While Jared Baker filled in admirably against USC, Arizona would benefit from having at least one of its top-two running backs on the field in Pullman. Having both, of course, would be ideal.
– The Cougars’ affinity for passing leaves them vulnerable late in games when trying to protect a lead. While no one in Arizona wants to be down late in the game Saturday, opponents have scored 76 fourth-quarter points against Washington State, meaning you’re never really out of the game.
– Opponents have scored touchdowns on 50 percent (14-of-28) of red zone attempts vs. Washington State this season; Arizona has reached the end zone on 47 percent (14-of-30) of their forays inside the 20.
– Arizona QB Anu Solomon was adequate when throwing the ball last time out against USC, but did very little with his legs. He said there were a couple times where he should have kept the ball and run with it, so you’d have to think he’ll be more apt to do so Saturday in Pullman.
– Prior to the USC game, in which he missed 3-of-5 attempts (including the likely game-winner in the final seconds), UA kicker Casey Skowron had made 11-of-13 kicks and looked like a pretty solid option for the Wildcats. It will have been two weeks since his last game — is that enough time to move on? Furthermore, will he be able to?