Arizona 101: Now or never for Cougar D?

WASHINGTON STATE and No. 15 Arizona enjoyed a week off heading to Saturday's matchup, so both teams should be relatively healthy, but perhaps a bit rusty at first. But that's also something the Cougar D should be ready to take advantage of should it occur.

The good fortune that has escaped WSU this season has shown brightly on the Wildcats. Prior to losing their first game, Arizona had won four straight games by a touchdown or less, including a last-second miracle against Cal. The Cougs, meanwhile, have lost three games by seven points or less.

Cougars (2-5) vs Wildcats (5-1)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
3:00 pm Pacific Time

WHERE:
Martin Stadium (32,952)

TELEVISION:
Pac-12 Networks

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
Arizona by 2 1/2

LAST MEETING:
WSU won 24-17 in 2013

THE SERIES:
Arizona leads 25-14

CF.C PREDICTION:
Cougs 42, Wildcats 35

THE WILDCATS ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
QB Anu Solomon: Rich Rodriguez found a perfect replacement for B.J. Denker in Solomon. The freshman is nimble and a natural playmaker. His accuracy has been inconsistent, but he has done a great job in limiting his mistakes, throwing 15 touchdowns against four interceptions.

RBs Nick Wilson & Terris Jones-Grigsby: Arizona's primary backs are both banged up and questionable for this week. Both are capable, but the pressure will really fall on Solomon if they can't go -- he is the only other player with 100 rushing yards this season.

WRs Kayleb Jones & Austin Hill: Hill is the big name (a Biletnikoff finalist in 2012) but Solomon has forged an even stronger rapport with Jones, who leads the team with 39 catches for 592 yards and six touchdowns.

Overview
Arizona still runs Rich Rodriguez's run-oriented spread offense but with Ka'Deem Carey gone and injuries hitting the RB corps, they are having to throw the ball more. The offense utilizes a great deal of speed and misdirection. Solomon makes a lot of quick throws out of play action, using mostly simple reads.

Strategy
Arizona is nowhere near as effective running the ball as they were last year but Solomon is proving to be a much better passer than Denker was. Yes, WSU needs to focus on stopping the run as linebackers coach Ken Wilson told CF.C this week but Destiny Vaeao (pictured above) and the Cougars have to make life difficult for Solomon or he could march Arizona up and down the field. WSU needs to keep it simple: Stay home and don't bite on the initial action on the play. Play instinctively, watch the quarterback's eyes, and make a play for the ball.

WSU has but two interceptions this season, that’s just not going to get it done. Given the two offenses, whoever wins the turnovers battle could well win the game: Arizona is plus-2 on the season, while WSU is minus-7. Arizona is going to get their yards, they have all season. But WSU can limit the damage and win this game with takeaways being the tipping point.

Key Statistic
Red Zone TDs: 47 percent. Arizona has made an impressive 30 trips inside the redzone in six games, but this is where the weaker running game has come back to haunt them. They have scored only 80 percent of the time, and secured a touchdown less than half the time.

THE WILDCATS ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
SAM Scooby Wright III: Looking like a first-team All Pac-12 pick this season, Wright leads the Wildcats in sacks (6) and tackles (70).

S/OLB Will Parks: He plays the “spur," a hybrid roving S/OLB in Arizona’s 3-3-5. The junior is third on the team in tackles and has one interception. He offered up some bulletin board material this week, saying this about WSU to the Arizona Daily Star: “I enjoy it a whole lot; just to be able to get about 10, 15, 20 picks because they throw it 90 times a game. We should come out with a lot of interceptions and pass breakups. It’s a chance to pad the stat book for everybody.”

Overview
Arizona's bend-but-don't-break nickel defense seems to be just good enough to win. Except for opening week, every game has been decided by a touchdown or less -- so they are used to playing under pressure. Holding Oregon to 24 points was impressive, but the Wildcats gave up 45 points to Cal, suggesting they are vulnerable to the Air Raid.

Strategy
They may keep five defensive backs on the field, but Arizona's pass defense is highly questionable. WSU has only picked off two passes this season, but the Wildcats have only managed two better. The overall passing yardage has been moderate, but the 8.1 yards per pass attempt is by far the worst of any defense in the conference. Connor Halliday should have the green light all day.

Key Statistic
Opposing QB Rating: 148. Outside of Cal, the Wildcats haven't faced a lot of potent passing attacks, but opposing quarterbacks have looked brilliant nonetheless.

THE WILDCATS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
The “icing the kicker” theory got a huge statistical boost two weeks ago. USC’s Steve Sarkisian called a timeout in the final seconds of both the first and second half, just before Arizona kicker Casey Skowron split the uprights on plays whistled dead. He then proceeded to shank both of his second attempts, preserving USC's two point victory.

FINAL THOUGHTS
-The Cougars manned up and beat Arizona in Tucson last year, snapping a three-game losing streak and moving to 5-5. They need a similar momentum booster this season, at 2-5 and needing to win four of five to reach bowl eligibility.

-They matched up very well with this team last year and there is little reason to think they won't again. I expect Halliday to have a big day, but the Cougar defense needs to make a statement on Saturday if the Cougars are going to win. If Halliday has the offense firing, Anu Solomon will have to force the issue to keep pace and that’s when the Cougar D needs to take hold of the opportunity staring them in the face. Force some turnovers and the Cougars could not only win this game, but do so by a decent margin.

- Arizona leads the Pac-12 with 557 yards of total offense per game. WSU is second with 534 hashes.


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