The Early Glimpse: Cougs vs. Wildcats

RIGHT NOW, you’d take a return trip to the New Mexico Bowl, right? Of course you would. Because that means the Cougars will have reached at least six wins for 2014, a goal that seems quite formidable heading into this week. Indeed, Washington State has its collective backs to the wall, placed there by a 2-5 start to the season.

The what-if game does no good at this point, because unlike all touchdowns in the NFL, there is no chance of the review booth overturning previous bad luck or dumb calls.

It is what it is: 2-5 and headed for a big letdown unless the Cougars can find a way to improve their play and luck during the final five games of the regular season.

What remains for Washington State are home games against Arizona, USC and Washington, and road contests at Oregon State and Arizona State. Can the Cougars win four of their final five, or even sweep their remaining games to earn a bowl bid?

The odds are stacked against Washington State. For starters, the Cougars figure to be underdogs in each of their final five games. There are no gimmes.

On the plus side, Washington State has reason to feel confident in playing Arizona and USC, two teams the Cougars beat on the road a year ago. No road games on consecutive weeks; there’s a bye between the OSU and ASU games. Three of WSU’s final five are at home.

On the down side, the Cougars are 2-9 in Pac-12 home games under Mike Leach. Three of the final five opponents are ranked. The easiest of the five remaining games looks like the Apple Cup.

It really comes down to these next two games. If Washington State can beat Arizona and USC – remember, the Cougars beat these two at their place a year ago – they’ll have the mojo and confidence needed to take a crack at winning the final three games.

A split of these next two isn’t good enough in my mind. Sweeping Oregon State, Arizona State and Washington isn’t going to happen without the feel-good of conquering Arizona and USC.

No. 15 Arizona (5-1, 2-1) at Washington State (2-5, 1-3)


The kickoff: 3 p.m. Saturday, Martin Stadium

TV: Pac-12 Network

The line: Wildcats by 3

The series: Wildcats lead 25-14


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About Arizona: What to make of these Wildcats? They have the Pac-12’s most impressive win to date, a 31-24 upset of then-No. 2 Oregon. They cracked the top 10 with that win, and got people talking big about a program that hasn’t so much as played in a Rose Bowl. Arizona has an exciting offense, and some playmakers on defense. But they’re young at several key positions, and the Wildcats’ program has been the epitome of a mediocre program, one that hasn’t had an eye-catching 10, 11 or 12-win season in years.

But one thing Washington State must know about Arizona? The Cougars better plan to play the final seconds Saturday, because the Wildcats sure do.

The season’s high-water mark, of course, was 49-45 win over California, where Arizona rallied from a 18-point deficit with a 36-point fourth quarter. But there have been other big second halves and fourth quarters. The Wildcats nearly came to Pullman 6-0, the only loss coming when Arizona’s Casey Skowron missed a 36-yard field goal as time expired in a 28-26 loss to USC.

Arizona lives on close games; the margins of its past five games are 3, 7, 4, 7 and 2 points.

The numbers suggest when Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez get together on the same field, the scoreboard operator is in for a workout. But not always. Last year, Washington State’s 24-17 win over Arizona was the lowest aggregate score for the 2013 Wildcats when playing an FBS opponent.

Arizona’s strength is its offense, averaging a heady 557 yards per game. Though there are some similarities between the Wildcats and Cougars offense, Arizona attacks defenses with more balance. The Wildcats average 199.5 rushing yards per game, and 357.5 passing yards per game.

Statistically, the Wildcats rank among the country’s top 10 in total offense (No. 4), passing offense (No. 7) and fourth down conversions (No. 8).

Defensively, Arizona has had some issues.

It bodes well for WSU that California ran up 573 yards and 45 points against the Wildcats. Arizona is yielding 432 yards a game (No. 90 nationally), and 278 yards through the air (No. 106). However, it’s a misnomer to think Arizona is a complete defensive pushover; the Wildcats did hold Oregon to 24 points in Autzen Stadium, one of the Ducks’ lowest home field totals in years.

Quarterback Anu Solomon is having an outstanding redshirt-freshman year. Playing like an upperclassman, Solomon has passed for 2,136 yards and 15 touchdowns. Solomon has only four interceptions, and is completely 62.6 percent of his passes. He gives the Wildcats a dual threat presence, too, as Solomon has run 55 times for 160 yards.

Cayleb Jones is Arizona’s top receiver, with 39 catches for 592 yards and six touchdowns. Like the Cougars, Arizona has a fleet of capable receivers, as there are seven players on the roster with at least 14 catches. Austin Hill (25-345, 3 TD) and Nate Phillips (21-225, 1 TD) are next best.

Hard to say what the Cougars will see from Arizona’s running game. Nick Wilson leads the Wildcats with 574 yards and six touchdowns, but the true freshman missed the USC game with an ankle injury. Wilson’s status for WSU is unknown. Terris Jones-Grigsby has 299 yards and three touchdowns this season, but he’s also up in the air after leaving the USC game with a chest injury.

Arizona’s return game is nothing special, good news for the beleaguered Cougar special teams. Skowron is just an average kicker, as he’s 13 of 18 on field goal tries, but only 5 of 8 between 30 and 39 yards.

The Wildcats’ big play threat on defense is linebacker Scooby Wright, who leads the team in tackles (70), tackles for loss (11) and sacks (6). Linebacker Derrick Turituri, a Northwest native, has five tackles for losses and three sacks. Arizona has eight takeaways, but no one has more than one interception or fumble return.

The last time: Playing for the first time since 2010, Washington State scored a 24-17 win in Tucson. Connor Halliday threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Isiah Myers (pictured above) with 2:15 remaining for the go-ahead score and the WSU defense grounded UA on the game’s final play. Halliday completed 39 of 53 passes for 319 yards in the win. The Cougars held Arizona to a second-half field goal, and 395 yards offense for the game.

Familiar faces: Three former Washingtonians dot Arizona’s roster, including a former Cougar commit in freshman defensive tackle Marcus Griffin (Bellevue). Other Wildcats from Washington are junior linebacker Sir Thomas Jackson (Seattle/O’Dea) and freshman tight end Alexei Oro (Seattle/O’Dea).

The lone Arizona coach with WSU ties is offensive line coach Jim Michalczik, who played for the Cougars from 1984-88. Arizona’s director of equipment Wendell Neal was WSU's equipment director from 1989-98.

Notable note: The last time Washington State beat Arizona at home was 2003, also the last time the Cougars had a winning season.

Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel


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