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Washington State Cougars vs. Arizona Wildcats Preview and Prediction

Luke Falk

Luke Falk

Since losing in Week 1 to FCS Portland State, few teams in the Pac-12 have been as hot as Washington State. The Cougars have won four of their last five, with the sole loss coming in a back-and-forth, one-score contest at nationally ranked Cal.

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With its overtime defeat of Oregon, Washington State positioned itself as a possible X-factor in the Pac-12 North race. Maintaining that place is contingent on winning Saturday at Arizona.

The defending Pac-12 South champion Wildcats cling to the hope of repeating. Despite an 0-2 start to conference play, Arizona's not eliminated from contention. Both teams ahead of the Wildcats in the loss column, Arizona State and Utah, are on the November docket.

Arizona cannot endure another loss, however, and stopping the surging Cougars is a tall order.

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Washington State at Arizona

Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Spread: Arizona -7.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Arizona Ground The Air Raid?
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk is hitting his stride in Pac-12 play. Thrust into the starting lineup last season after Connor Halliday's season-ending injury, Falk's experience has translated into a savvy command of head coach Mike Leach's offense.

Falk is second in the nation at 395.2 passing yards per game, is completing better than 72 percent of his attempts and has 21 touchdowns to just four interceptions.

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Washington State's deep and diverse corps of receivers pose match-up problems for an Arizona secondary that's dealt with injuries all season. Converted wide receiver DaVonte' Neal thrived in his move to cornerback, but was dinged up for last week's win at Colorado.

Defending Washington State's receivers is a case of pick your poison, but a healthy Neal is vital, particularly in a matchup with dangerous Gabe Marks.

Arizona's No. 92-ranked passing defense is most susceptible to big plays. Look for Washington State to attack early with a vertical route to either Marks or Williams, likely in a situation wherein Cam Denson is isolated in coverage.

2. Arizona's Two-Quarterback Attack
Arizona came out clicking at Colorado last week, scoring 17 points on its first three possessions. The Wildcats then went stale, coughing up turnovers and failing to get into scoring range as the Buffs rallied to take the lead.

Head coach Rich Rodriguez shook things up by pulling quarterback Anu Solomon for dynamic ball carrier Jerrard Randall. Arizona sacrifices a dimension from the passing game with Randall, but his explosiveness out of the pocket put Colorado's defense back on its heels. The Wildcats rolled up 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to regain control for the win.

While two-quarterback systems are typically less than ideal, Rodriguez tapped into a quality last week that, at the very least, forces defensive coordinators to prepare for two distinctly different styles. Solomon is pass-first but will rush if the opening is there; Randall is a speedster who relies on quick, short routes through the air.

3. Winning The Long Game
Arizona and Washington State are two of the nation's very best in explosive plays; that is, plays from scrimmage going for at least 20 yards. The Wildcats rank No. 11 and the Cougars No. 17.

While Arizona's Solomon is capable of uncorking a deep pass, Wildcat ball-carriers are adept at finding gaps created by their version of the spread offense. Whether it's Randall, Jared Baker or Nick Wilson, Arizona can turn the tide of a game with a long touchdown run.

The difference in explosive plays Saturday is likely to spell the difference in final score.

Final Analysis

Arizona enjoyed a five-game win streak over Washington State from 2006 through 2010, but the series went on a two-year hiatus after the conference's expansion to 12 teams. Washington State ended the streak in impressive fashion in 2013, shutting down the Wildcats' explosive offense to win in Arizona Stadium for the first time since 2004.

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With its margin for error in the Pac-12 virtually gone, Arizona must defend its home field this time around. The Wildcats are in a manageable stretch, with a road trip to Washington on Halloween before a three-game South run at USC, Utah and Arizona State.

Avoiding an offensive lull akin to the drought it suffered last week at Colorado, or in the first half of the home loss to UCLA, is vital. Washington State's explosive offense can pile on quickly if presented an opportunity — just ask Oregon, which had a two-score lead erased in the fourth quarter against the Cougars two weeks ago.

Wilson's return to the lineup after missing the Colorado game gives Arizona a boost, particularly with Baker playing well in the starter's absence. The Wildcats' ability to attack with a two-headed backfield — if not three-headed with Randall in the lineup — should buoy Arizona against a Washington State defense ranked No. 110 nationally.

Prediction: Arizona 42, Washington 35

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.