The answer remains to be seen, but people shouldn't be led to believe that the Wildcats are traveling all the way to Pullman just to pay a visit to Mike Price. This team has some fight left in them, as evidenced by last week's overtime battle with No. 19 TCU. Arizona has lost four games this season, but they haven't been to patsies. LSU, Purdue, Oregon, and TCU are all top 25 teams, and have only two losses between them. So the Wildcats can justly claim that much of their woes are the result of a lethal schedule (and, of course, Mackovic).
Who: Arizona Wildcats (1-4) v No. 14 Washington State Cougars (4-1)
Where: Martin Stadium, 2 PM
TV: No live
Line: Cougars by 28
Taking the helm of the sinking ship is first year defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. He achieved some notoriety in coordinating Texas A&M's stout defenses of the last six years and Colorado's defenses for a six year stretch that spanned their national championship campaign. He is an unknown factor as a head coach but was highly respected as a coordinator. Part of his problem will be dividing the workload with one less coach on hand. It is hard to tell exactly how involved Mackovic was with the team's operational details, but at least on the offensive end, there may be a leadership void, as he handled the play-calling.
WSU enters the game coming off one of the more noteworthy blowouts in school history, slamming the Oregon Ducks 55-16 on the road. But did the Cougars shoot their wad last week or is there more fuel left in the tank? History suggests that the Cougs could be due for a letdown and a team like Arizona, which is overdue for some good luck, could be the team to hand it to them. Nonetheless, most fans and sports writers will follow conventional wisdom and assume that since Oregon destroyed Arizona, and WSU destroyed Oregon, this game is in the bag. Has anyone else noticed that it never seems to work out that way?
THE WILDCATS ON OFFENSE
Overview: The Arizona offense hasn't scored more than 10 points since opening week. Preseason injuries and academic casualties left them thin heading into the season and now they are just struggling to survive. They've shuffled through quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers without finding a combination that works thus far. A patchwork offensive line has proved equally ineffective at both pass and run blocking, giving Hankwitz plenty of options for failure.
Strategy: The Cougars should expect to see a highly conservative offensive package out of the Wildcats, who will look to avoid giving up the big turnovers in an effort to keep this one close. Arizona would love to run the ball but hasn't been able to for the better part of two seasons. The running backs are there, but the line is not. If the Cougs start to suffocate them, Arizona will look to the deep ball to get a puncher's chance at victory.
Players to Know:
Kris Heavner, QB: The Wildcats aren't without talent, it's just undeveloped and it starts with the Quarterback. Freshman Kris Heavner got his first start last week in an effort to pump some life into the lethargic Arizona offense. He performed surprisingly well against a stout TCU defense, passing for 276 yards included three long bomb plays. Unfortunately, he also surrendered four interceptions. Expect Heavner to take the heat off himself a bit by operating a more fundamental, control-oriented offense.
Clarence Farmer, RB: Farmer led the conference in rushing back in 2001, but suffered a season ending knee injury in 2002 and very public battles with Mackovic ever since. Farmer is still a viable rushing threat, but after watching him on tape this week Coach said, "he isn't the same Farmer I remember." He currently leads the Wildcats in touchdowns with just two.
Mike Bell, RB: Bell has to share burden (literally) of rushing the ball for Arizona. Like Farmer, he is a viable running back when he gets blocking, but if the line isn't working for Farmer, it won't be any different with Bell.
Ricky Williams, WR: Heavner seemed to find a favorite target in Williams last week, who caught 5 balls for 131 yards. And in doing so officially made WSU the only program in the country without a standout receiver named Williams.
Brian Ealy, WR: Ealy became Arizona's possession receiver once Andre Thurman failed to make grades. He leads the team in catches but most have been for short yardage. Like most of the Arizona receivers, he relies on his speed to make plays.
Brandon Phillips, OT: Arizona's top offensive lineman was lost for the season with a knee injury against Oregon, adding further problems to an already demoralized Wildcat's offense. Several other Wildcat linemen have also battled knee problems making their line very thin.
THE WILDCATS ON DEFENSE
Overview: The Arizona defense was utterly humiliated for three straight games heading into last weekend. LSU, Oregon and Purdue had combined to score 159 points between them. But the Arizona defense looked quite different last Saturday—they actually had one. In fact the Wildcats nearly kept TCU out of the end zone, except for a fluke 98-yard pass play at the end of the first half. All indications are that it was less a matter changing tactics and more a result of just playing harder. The Wildcats were fired up last week, and WSU should expect nothing less this week. Arizona is hoping to build off the success it had against TCU, which was a lesson in bend but not break defense. Hankwitz is still in the process of converting Arizona's double eagle flex into a 3-4 defense. The 3-4 has traditionally given the Cougars trouble (UW runs one), as linebackers in zone coverage can take some of the hot routes away. Cougar quarterback Matt Kegel has faced plenty of nickel and 4-3 packages this season but not a true 3-4. It will be interesting to see how he responds.
Strategy: As with the offense, expect the Wildcats to play conservative as hell and focus on fundamental schemes that worked against TCU. The good news about the 3-4 is that it can be sometimes easier for teams to run against. Arizona has surrendered an average of nearly 200 rushing yards per game, so the Cougars should focus their attack there. If the ‘Cats can't stop the run, the Cougs should have an easy time of it. In passing situations, Arizona is most likely to try and mimic New Mexico in their attempts to contain the deep ball. Kegel should expect defensive backs to play deep, but the ‘Cats have been torched so badly this year I'm not sure how worried he should be. Regardless of whether it is on the ground or in the air, WSU should try and go for the jugular early. Arizona folds like a cheap tent when they get behind.
Players to Know:
Darrell Brooks, FS and Clay Hardt, SS: As to be expected with the league's most flammable defense, the safeties are their leading tacklers. Heck, even one of the second string safeties ranks in the top four on this team.
Carlos Williams, DE: Williams is UofA's leader up front. The three down linemen in Arizona's 3-4 set essentially look and act like defensive tackles, averaging 292 pounds. This normally serves to stuff up the middle, but often does so at the expense of defensive speed and pass rushing.
Michael Jolivette, CB: Jolivette is widely hailed as one of the top cover corners in the country. But when with opposing quarterbacks have a 151.1 passing rating against your secondary, it's difficult to single anybody out for praise.
THE WILDCATS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
On top of everything else the kicker for Arizona has been abysmal this season. Senior Bobby Gill has hit only 2 of 5 attempts so far, indicating that even if UA manages to force a kickers duel, they are in trouble. The rest of their special teams are sound.
My overall premise for optimism in the Oregon game was that in the Pac-10, we know how to beat our own. Well, that goes both ways, folks. Any Pac-10 team is capable of beating any other if they are focused and catch a few breaks. WSU needs to take this game seriously. Though the ‘Cats and Cougs have both shown sporadic success in the last 10 years, Arizona has dominated the series. Seven of the last ten meetings have gone to the Wildcats, and there have been some heartbreakers. Five of the Arizona wins came by a single score (one of which wasn't a score at all!). The Cougs are heavily favored in this game and rightfully so, but we aren't so good that we can take anybody lightly. Something tells me Arizona isn't as bad as everyone has pegged them either; or they won't be now that Mackovic is gone. WSU needs to put up one more good fight heading into their bye week, both to ensure another Pac-10 victory and to make sure they won't be too rusty for the trip to Stanford in two weeks.