Division title-seeking Cougars host the bowl-seeking Wildcats
Washington State, ranked No. 8 in the latest CFP rankings, faces a tough two-game stretch in its quest to lock up a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Cougars (9-1, 6-1 Pac-12) will battle teams in back-to-back weeks who soundly beat them a year ago. Washington State has stayed on track to exact revenge, running its winning streak to six games after beating Colorado 31-7 last weekend.
A different goal is on the agenda for Arizona. The Wildcats (5-5, 4-3 Pac-12) need a win in one of their next two games to become bowl eligible. It has been an up and down season for Arizona. The Wildcats, who are coming off a bye week, have won two straight against Oregon and Colorado to put themselves back in position for a bowl game.
Arizona leads the all-time series 27-16. The Wildcats have won seven of the last 10 meetings against Washington State, including a 58-37 upset over the Cougars a season ago.
Arizona at Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 17 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Washington State -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Arizona slow down the Air Raid?
Last season, Arizona got gashed repeatedly by Washington State's potent Air Raid attack, giving up 602 yards on 58 completions. The Cougars averaged 10.4 yards per completion as quarterbacks Luke Falk and Tyler Hilinksi combined to complete 69 percent of their pass attempts. On the other hand, the duo also combined for four interceptions to lessen the sting for Arizona a bit.
It isn't likely to be much better this season. Arizona allows 248.7 yards per game through the air, ranking ninth in the Pac-12 in pass defense. The Wildcats surrender 417 yards per game overall, which is good for 10th in the league. That's not a good sign going up against a Washington State offense that leads the nation with 392.3 passing yards per game. The Cougars also top the Pac-12 in scoring (37.6 ppg) and total offense (470.0 ypg).
Gardner Minshew should feast on Arizona's secondary and linebackers. Through 10 games, the senior has already thrown for 3,852 yards and 29 touchdowns while completing 69.6 percent of his passes. Minshew has a chance to become the Pac-12’s all-time single-season passing leader. He needs 863 passing yards to eclipse the 4,714 yards accumulated by former California quarterback Jared Goff in 2015.
2. How will Washington State's defense fare against Arizona's backfield?
One reason why the Wildcats have clawed back into the bowl picture is an uptick in production from the running game. J.J. Taylor has taken his running to a higher level over the last three games. Taylor churned out 558 yards and three touchdowns over those contests, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. For the season, he has 1,221 rushing yards, ranking second among Pac-12 players. Taylor is averaging 122.1 rushing yards per game.
If there's a team that seems up to the challenge of slowing down or stopping Taylor, it's Washington State. The Cougars are superb when it comes to getting pressure in the backfield and shutting down the run. Washington State allows a scant 125.4 yards per game on the ground, which is third best in the Pac-12. That ability to disrupt the run shows in the fact that the Cougars have tallied 66 tackles for a loss in 10 games — including a Pac-12-best 30 sacks.
If Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate is at full strength, that could take some pressure off Taylor. Tate's production in the passing game has improved considerably. Over the last two games, he has thrown for 539 yards and eight touchdowns while completing 65.6 percent of his passes. Tate threw for a season-high 350 yards with five touchdown passes against Colorado.
3. Can Washington State avoid a November swoon?
Finishing out a season strong has not been a hallmark for the Cougars in the Mike Leach era. Since Leach took over the program in 2012, Washington State has posted a 13-11 mark in November. Late losses have kept the Cougars from claiming the Pac-12 North title each of the last two seasons.
It seems like Washington State has the pieces in place to turn the corner and write a different story this season. The Cougars are one of only three FBS teams that are ranked in the top 20 for both total offense and total defense. The other two? Alabama and Clemson. Washington State's defense came through in the team's wins over California and Colorado, shutting down opponents when the offense struggled to finish off drives.
Washington State carries a 12-game home winning streak into the contest against Arizona. The Cougars absolutely drilled the Wildcats when the teams last played in Pullman two years ago, winning 69-7. While it won't be so lopsided this time around, you can still expect Washington State to come out on top. The Cougars are the superior team on both sides of the ball, and Arizona will have a tough time hanging with Washington State for four quarters.
Prediction: Washington State 38, Arizona 24
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.