AT A GLANCE: Cougars (6-2) vs Wildcats (2-6)
1:00 P.M. PT
Martin Stadium (32,952)
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WSU is favored by 16 1/2 points (Line opened at plus-15).
Washington State won 45-42 in Arizona in 2015.
Arizona leads 26-15.
MATT MOORE's PREDICTION:
Cougs 41, Wildcats 21
THE WILDCATS ON OFFENSE:
QBs Brandon Dawkins and Anu Solomon: Solomon is healthy again and some 'Zona beat writers are predicting he'll start. But n nobody knows for sure except Rich Rodriguez. Dawkins has a lot of physical talent, but has struggled the more the team has leaned on him. In his first three starts, the sophomore averaged 131 rushing yards and completed 62 percent of his passes. In his last three starts, his rushing averaged has dropped to 53 rushing hashes and a 46 percent completion rate. If Dawkins starts, you can still expect to Solomon to see the field at some point in the game. He showed a ton of rust against Stanford going 0-3 passing, with a fumbled handoff. But it wouldn't be a surprise to see a completely different Solomon a week later.
RB Samajie Grant: Arizona is so banged up at running back, they had to cannibalize their receiving corps. But though the diminutive Grant (5-9 180) is new to the position, he has great quickness and speed. Unless Nick Wilson or J.J. Taylor make miraculous recoveries from leg injuries, Zach Green is the only other scholarship running back available. Expect Grant to get his second career start this week.
WRs Nate Phillips, Shun Brown, and Trey Griffey: Arizona uses three receiver formations, and they are loaded with experience at the position. But none are dominant enough to overcome the inconsistencies Arizona is dealing with everywhere else. Griffey is the deep threat and Phillips is the possession receiver. The two have combined for 39 catches and 585 yards.
Rich Rodriguez' version of the spread centers around the running back, and the Wildcats simply do not have enough firepower back there (although again, Grant's speed makes him dangerous every time he touches the ball). Arizona utilize three wide receivers to try and open up the defense but when the quarterbacks can't throw accurately, they have no reason to loosen up. When UA has a talented back like Wilson, the offense can be quite dangerous. But at the moment, they are operating with spare parts.
Dawkins is similar to what WSU faced with McMaryion last week -- but bigger, faster, and more difficult to tackle. He can make a lot out of busted plays and that can cause trouble for any defense. I expect a lot of read option runs and quarterback roll outs with a run/pass option for Dawkins, assuming he starts. As thin as UA is at running back, the Cougs need to keep their eyes on Dawkins and really wrap him up well. There is risk of over-exposing the secondary to Arizona's other playmakers, but if the Wildcats have to win this game with Dawkins' arm, they are in trouble.
Five Completions: Arizona managed just five completed passes against Stanford (5-of-18). But seriously, five? You don't want to expose the secondary to big plays, but the burden of proof is entirely on the Wildcats to prove they can throw the ball effectively.
THE WILDCATS ON DEFENSE:
LBs Paul Magloire and DeAndre Miller: The replacement starting middle linebacker Michael Barton had a knee injury against Stanford and may be out this week. Cody Ippolito is already out for the season. The Wildcats are running out of bodies and may be forced to move somebody inside, which could mean backup Jake Matthews, or change schemes. Magloire has been fairly consistent on the weak side, leading the team in tackles for loss. Miller has failed to record a tackle in two straight games, which coaches are chalking up to him being less than 100 percent.
NT Parker Zellers: Zellers, along with Justin Belknap and Jack Banda, are considered three of Arizona's top defensive linemen. And all three are listed at just 247 pounds. But Belknap and Zellers, a walk on and former walk on, respectively, are starting ahead of bigger 'Zona d-linemen who came in as heralded recruits. For how light it is, the Arizona d-line is scrappy and must be respected. What about the 34 points Arizona allowed to Stanford last week? Keep in mind Stanford’s average starting position was its own 40-yard line.
Rich Rodriguez fired his entire defensive staff from last season and brought in Marcel Yates from Boise State. They abandoned Rodriguez's old 3-3-5 scheme he has used since coaching at West Virginia, and switched to a more aggressive 3-4. The initial results have been lackluster. The Wildcats rank No. 102 against the run, and #85 against the pass. Opponents are averaging 40 points per game in conference play, and the hapless Wildcat offense has only added to their problems. Arizona has not recruited particularly well defensively, and injuries are putting them in a bind.
Take note: It's a 3-3-5 base but Arizona will use a five-man front, a four-man front, will give offenses a different look with only two guys with hands on the ground and much like WSU, will shift around a lot pre-snap. The Wildcats will rush as few as three ... and as many as eight. Expect anything and everything. And if WSU doesn't execute and play with focus, Arizona is more than capable of turning in a half like Oregon State did in the first 30 minutes last week.
Much like the UA offense, the defense has gotten thin at its most essential position: linebacker. While the old scheme was more secondary driven in featuring playmakers like safety Scooby Wright, Yate's defense is more linebacker-centric. Given UA's injuries at linebacker, and WSU's pass heavy scheme, I am going predict that Arizona makes a switch to more of a base nickel defense this week, with plenty of blitzing on Falk. They seem poised to attempt high risk, high reward maneuver, even if they get burned. They don't have much to lose at this point. Elusive, passing catching running backs like Christian McCaffrey have consistently beaten the Wildcats, and I'd expect to a heavy dosage of WSU's three-headed monster will work well (RB Gerard Wicks pictured above).
47 percent of third down conversions allowed: When you don't do any one thing particularly well, it really opens the playbook for your opponents on third down. Arizona's defense ranks 117th nationally.
THE WILDCATS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Josh Pollack handles all the kicking and punting duties for Arizona, and he is accurate inside of 50 yards. Injuries have eliminated Arizona's best kick returners.
* Arizona fans aren't as depressed as you'd expect. This was not expected to be a big season in Tucson, and they are chalking up most of the struggles to injuries. At this point some are simply ready to move on to basketball season. Still, Wildcat boosters did not expect to be winless in conference play with as much as they have invested in the program the last few years. Rodriguez is feeling the pressure and is not about to write this game off. A win over No. 25 WSU is something Arizona wants desperately.
* UA is in no position to buy out Rich Rodriguez or any of the major staff contracts, but his struggles in what has largely been a down year for the conference may be starting to haunt him in recruiting. The Wildcats have still a top rated class lined up at the moment, but a number of those verbal pledges are starting to weaken according to recent reports.
* The road team has won every game in this series since 2009.
* As noted in the CF.C article linked below, Falk and Dawkins were teammates during Falk's brief stint at Oaks Christian. It should provide a bit of extra motivation for them both.
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AT A GLANCE: Cougars (6-2) vs Wildcats (2-6)