These next four games will define Cougars' season, no longer look nearly so daunting

WE HAVE FINALLY ARRIVED. CougFans have been eyeing this four-game stretch since the 2015-16 schedule was first released. And until six weeks ago, it looked murderous. It remains formidable, no doubt, but things have changed drastically for Washington State.

First, the Cougs are in a good place, and rising, especially on offense.  After dispatching Oregon on the road and getting the "finishing" monkey off their backs, they vanquished the playing-at-home concern before halftime against OSU. Meanwhile, Stanford (AP No. 10) looks very tough. But Arizona, UCLA and ASU have far more holes than originally thought headed into the season.

UCLA began the year ranked No. 13 in the AP poll, ASU was No. 15 and Arizona was No. 22.  Six games later, none of those three teams remain in the top 25.

Sure, Washington State (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12)  could still go 0-4 here if they don’t practice with intensity, come to play big boy football and execute.  But they are also fully capable of becoming bowl eligible – and more – by the time they finish this four-game span on Nov. 14 at UCLA. Here’s a closer look, with more emphasis on this week’s opponent, Arizona.

WSU at Arizona
The Wildcats keep running until they break off a big one.  And they’ve done that a lot, averaging 297.4 rushing yards per game, tied for sixth in the nation.

And they have 14 runs of 30-plus yards, tied for the most in the FBS. Running back Nick Wilson (who could return to action against WSU) backup quarterback Jerrard Randall (534 rushing yards already) and running back Jared Baker can break one at any time. And if the Cougs relax on just one play, they will.

So why is Arizona 5-2, after having barely held off Colorado this past Saturday, with the Buffs having not won a Pac-12 game in their last 14 tries?  

Arizona’s defensive depth is tissue paper thin. And the Wildcats, as they did in the second and third quarters against the Buffs, have struggled to throw the ball consistently.  QB Anu Solomon is going through a sever sophomore slump, and got benched after UA’s offense looked lost in the second and third quarters against CU.

Still, WSU has been poor at containing the run – except against Cal.  This positional matchup certainly favors Arizona on paper, but the Cougs will likely focus on trying to take one thing away, Arizona’s run game, and DC Alex Grinch’s unit probably looks a whole lot different pre-snap than they did against OSU.

And Wazzu doesn’t have to be perfect on defense, or even close to it, to win in Tucson. Arizona is going to get a lot of ground hashes in this game -- they have against everyone but Stanford (34 carries, 118 yards).  But what the Cougs have to do is simply limit the damage and keep Arizona from putting together long strength-sapping drives. Do that just enough, and a win is there for the taking.

The Cougar offense should be able to put up both yards and points vs. the Arizona defense (and they still haven’t put together a full game so there’s more potential to be realized). 

The other reason why Arizona may be starting to fade mentally and physically, as evidenced by the malaise against Colorado?  They don’t get a bye this year.  Criminal, but those are the cards they were dealt.   The Cougar D just needs to be serviceable and WSU can come out of the desert with a win.

Stanford at WSU
This is going to be a slugfest down in the trenches, the Cardinal offense runs the ball 65 percent of the time. Kevin Hogan has attempted but 135 passes in six games, roughly the same number as Luke Falk throws before breakfast on Tuesdays.

What is different about this Stanford team: they’re scoring at a much higher clip than their ground-and-pound teams of recent years, especially the past two weeks when they put 55 points on Arizona and 56 on UCLA.

The hope for an upset lies in WSU’s offense against Stanford’s pass defense. Stanford is ranked 45th in the FBS in team passing efficiency defense, No. 60 in passing yards allowed,  81st in third-down conversion percentage on defense, and t-118th in red zone defense.  ‘Paging Mr. Falk.  Paging Earth, Wind and Fire -- Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and Keith Harington. Gentlemen, start your engines.’

Statistically, Todd Graham’s bunch is ranked 33rd in run defense and passing offense, and they commit few penalties. Most every other key statistic spots ASU (4-3) in the bottom half of the FBS. 

ASU had a chance against Utah but folded in the fourth quarter – they rushed for only 15 yards in the game. The Sun Devils, though, were missing RB Demario Richard (No. 9 in nation at 133.0 ypg).

What will be fascinating to see is how WSU’s defensive line performs against the Sun Devil o-line.  ASU looked great up front against UCLA, overmatched against Utah. How good is the Cougar d-line and Alex Grinch at finding ways to win the battle up front?  We’ll find out Nov. 7, and it could well be the difference in the game.

Say hello to Team Schizophrenic. UCLA was 4-0 and No. 7 in the nation before a pair of beatdowns from ASU (38-23) and Cal (56-35).  The combination of true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, lots of penalties and the loss of linebacker Myles Jack and several others to injury have Jim Mora searching a new spark, any kind of spark.

The bad news for WSU is UCLA remains ranked No. 20 in the nation in passing yards allowed and 23rd in team passing efficiency defense.  But UCLA is 113th in rush defense. The question: Might Mike Leach take his trio of running backs out for a spin against the Bruins and see what they can do with, say, a combined 30 carries?

Or will he do what he did against OSU, with 18 combined carries and a bunch of screens to the running backs? Will he try to dictate his precision passing offense on UCLA: ‘We know you’ve been good against the pass but here it is, let’s see if you can try and stop us.’  Either way, UCLA doesn’t look like anything more than a team in the middle of the pack, not after the shellackings laid upon them their last two games.

THE COUGS still have a tough four-game stretch, but it's not nearly as tough as it once looked. Put another way, is there anyone CougFans think Washington State can't beat these next four games?


WSU's final two regular season games are against Colorado at home and UW in Seattle.

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