Washington State (6-3, 4-2 Pac-10), ranked 25th in this week's AP Poll, is coming off back to back conference wins over the Oregon Ducks and UCLA Bruins. Arizona (3-5, 1-4) has lost four of their last five.
The Cougars are playing for a top four conference finish and an invitation to a significant bowl game. The Wildcats are still a team with many question marks and for coaches, players, and fans alike, all are looking to the final four games to hopefully get some answers as to what the future holds for Arizona football. While some critics have already pushed the panic button on the Mike Stoops Era, many voices of reason still exist.
In analyzing this weekend's match up, one question that is often asked is how can Wazzou be so much better than Arizona this year? It's a good question. After all, WSU finished last season with four wins and seven losses. Their lone conference win was against Washington who was last year's Stanford (0-8, 0-5). Arizona was not much better (3-8, 2-6), but showed promising signs when they eight-clapped the then undefeated and 7th ranked Bruins in a 52-14 rout late in the season.
To answer this question, all one has to do is look at each teams' depth charts. Beyond coaching, schematics, and players executing, sometimes all a team needs is senior leadership. There is something invaluable about an experienced player entering a huddle and taking command. So much so that his teammates look into that player's eyes and know that they don't have any other choice but to play well. Their leader won't allow them to accept failure, finish in second place, and do whatever other cliché you can think of.
Willie Tuitama is that kind of player. He's only a true sophomore, though. He's also been sidelined by injuries. In Tuitama's absence who is willing to fill his shoes? Who has the ability to improve the entire offensive unit's level of play simply by stepping onto the football field?
What Arizona currently lacks, WSU has in the one-two punch of junior quarterback Alex Brink and senior split end Jason Hill. Watching these two in recent weeks, it is obvious that both have the ability to challenge and inspire the other to raise their game when it counts.
If Brink is missing his targets early in games, it seems like Hill is in his face challenging him to do better. This happened several times early in the season as WSU was struggling to find an identity. Last week, the identity of a winning team reared its ugly head in the direction of the Bruins as Brink threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-15 win.
Many may argue that what Brink and Hill have is that special relationship any quarterback has with his favorite receiving target. But I think leadership from players who've been in the program for several years is also playing a role in the Cougars' success.
The Cougars start seven players who are either juniors or seniors on offense. On defense they have 9 junior or senior starters while the other two are sophomores. Arizona this week will be starting four freshmen – and that's just on offense. Along with the freshmen, Arizona's offensive starters will include two sophomores, three juniors and two seniors.
If Chris Jennings gets the starting nod over Chris Henry, then one of our juniors is almost like a freshman in sheep's clothing as Jennings is only first year JC-transfer. Similarly, Kris Heavner counts as one of our two senior starters. While Heavner provides a lot of experience at the position, he began this season third on our depth chart and is only playing because of injuries to Tuitama and backup Adam Austin.
Defensively, Arizona fairs much better. They will start nine juniors or seniors this weekend. Arizona's defense has played well this year. Well enough to hold opponents to 20.0 points per game; an average that should have helped contribute to more team wins if our offense was more successful.
On offense, the Wildcats have scored 97 points thus far on 485 plays. That's an average of .20 points per play. If you factor that to calculate how many plays it takes to equal seven points, Arizona is running an average of 35 plays for every seven points. As crazy as that sounds, it's true.
Is Arizona's offensive statistics so bad because the team is that bad?
The answer to this question is, emphatically, NO!
Arizona is young. Extremely young. Almost unheard of young. Name a school, playing as grueling a schedule as Arizona (BYU, @LSU and then a Pac-10 slate where four teams are in the Top 25), whose starting offensive line this week will include three freshman, one sophomore and one junior. Add to that a true sophomore at receiver, a first year JC-Transfer at tailback and a third string QB, and it's a real testament to Arizona that they've been competitive in all but two games this season.
James Clark contributed to this story
Gary Randazzo is the basketball editor for WildcatInsider.com and Wildcat Sports Report Magazine.