Washington game not a must-win, but close

It may be week five for the Arizona Wildcats, but now the season really begins. With Washington coming to town, the Cats have their first measuring stick game, as well as a game that could be vital in the race for a bowl game.

At 2-2, the Wildcats are right where they are supposed to be. They beat the teams they had to beat, and lost to superior teams. Now they get the first "toss-up" game. Now we start to figure out how good, or bad, this football team is.

Washington and Arizona are comparable. Both are in a rebuilding stage. Both have their sites set on bowl games. The Dawgs are off to a faster start with three early wins, but overall their schedule has been a tad easier, or at least not as top-heavy as Arizona's.

The Wildcats have their share of problems, especially on the offensive end, but emerge from the first third of the game exactly where they are supposed to be from a record standpoint. LSU and USC were supposed to beat them. They played worse than expected against LSU, but probably a little better than expected against USC.

Despite one touchdown against a D-IA team, and an anemic running game, the Cats are .500. BYU, while not the BYU of the 80's, is a decent football team. The Cats, who lost a lot of games late in 2004 and 2005, found a way to win.

The offense was stymied against two stellar defenses, but was also very inconsistent against two lesser defenses. Although they moved the ball pretty well against BYU and SFA, they averaged just 22 points in those two wins. Now they get a Washington defense that ranks in the bottom part of the Pac-10. If the Cats can't move the ball against the Huskies, it is time to start shining up that panic button.

Frankly, this is a must win, or pretty close. Arizona must go 4-4 or better to earn a bowl birth. If the Cats are not good enough to beat Washington at home, the likelihood of winning four more games looks remote.

There is no doubt that Washington is improved, Tyrone Willingham has them on the right tracks, but if the Cats can't beat them at home can they be expected to beat UCLA, Stanford and Washington State at home? Without an upset of one of the top tier teams, a loss to Washington would mean that the Cats would have to win four in a row, three on the road to become bowl eligible. The Cats finish the year with Cal at home, at Oregon and they end the regular season by hosting ASU. A tough end, one without a team Arizona appears to be better than.

The only team Arizona is clearly better than is Stanford. Their defense appears to be top-3 in the league, but the offense has not shown it can put up enough points to win a shootout. Can the Cats count on their defense to help them win three road games against the other teams they need to knock off to go bowling?

That is why Washington is an important game. The Huskies and the Wildcats are both vying for the same bowl slots in the middle of the Pac-10. A win by UW would put them just two wins away from bowl eligibility.

More importantly, a win over UW gives the Wildcats some margin for error. The Cats have their five most winnable games one after another, with three on the road. It would also be a huge confidence builder. UW came to Tucson last year and dismantled the Wildcats. A little revenge would go a long way. It would also be a win over a team with a winning record. Right now the two teams Arizona has beaten are a combined 2-6, with BYU winning both games.

A win over UW would put the Cats halfway to the six wins they need. It would also give the team another shot of confidence. They came away from the USC game feeling pretty good about how they competed, but they need a win to keep the momentum.

Washington may or may not be as good as their record, but they have found ways to win. It is a great measuring stick for this Wildcat team. It is tough to gauge much from LSU and USC because the Wildcats are clearly inferior to both top-10 programs at this stage of rebuilding. The BYU win was a good win, but many Wildcat fans came away from the Stephen F. Austin game with a lot of doubts about the team.

Frankly, Washington should be a year behind Arizona in their rebuilding process. Although Keith Gilbertson did not leave the program in the same shambles that John Mackovic left Arizona, it is not too far off. If Arizona is a legitimate bowl contender, they have to beat the Washington's of the world. They have to beat good, but not great teams. If the Cats can't beat Washington at home, then they are probably not a bowl team. They are likely a year behind where they (and we) thought they were in terms of rebuilding.

They could take some positives from a good performance and a loss, but not much. The time for ‘moral victories' ended as soon as the final whistle blew at the end of the USC game. Playing tough and losing against a top-5 team is great. Playing tough and losing to a team that won just two games the year before is not good enough. Not any more.

Sure, they could lose and still get hot and rattle off several wins in the middle of the schedule. Sure they could still pick off one of the good teams at the tail end of the year, but a loss to Washington makes it tougher.

This week's game is not a "must win", but it sure is close.

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