The 2016 campaign was one Arizona Wildcats faithful would probably rather forget. The low point in one of the worst seasons in program history came on Nov. 5 in Pullman, Washington, when Washington State drilled Arizona, 69-7. "They totally embarrassed for several years, and especially last year," Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said.
Though 2016 had particular significance as the most lopsided loss in UA history, Washington State has won three of the last four in the series, including its last two at Arizona Stadium in 2013 and '15.
This time around, the Wildcats welcome the Cougars to Tucson with the two teams tied for first place in their respective divisions. Washington State's status as a co-leader in the North is not exactly unexpected: Head coach Mike Leach retained the most veteran roster in the Pac-12 coming into 2017, led by quarterback Luke Falk. Arizona has outplayed expectations, however, almost doubling last season's win total and far exceeding the Pac-12 media's preseason last-place projection.
Saturday's outcome could prove pivotal to the championship race as the Pac-12 enters the final month of this regular season.
Washington State at Arizona
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 28 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Washington State -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Arizona's pass rush
Prior to last season, Marcel Yates was hired as Arizona's defensive coordinator to bring a more aggressive style after Jeff Casteel oversaw a 3-3-5 stack for the previous four seasons. The switch to a 5-2 look faced serious growing pains, partially the result of a lack of personnel to run it.
Never were Arizona's deficiencies with the new defense more evident than against Washington State. Quarterback Luke Falk operated with a clean pocket throughout the afternoon and dissected Arizona with a staggering 32 completions on 35 attempts.
This season, freshmen Tony Fields and Kylan Wilborn have added a much-needed, more consistent pass rush to the Arizona defense. The Wildcats have 16 sacks on the season, and they need to find ways to generate pressure to throw Falk off his rhythm on Saturday.
2. Washington State's defense of the Arizona run game
Rodriguez-coached teams typically run the ball well, but Khalil Tate's insertion into the lineup as starting quarterback a few weeks ago has taken Arizona to another level in that regard.
Tate has emerged as the Wildcats' leading ball carrier, averaging almost 14 yards per carry. But Arizona's win over Cal last week demonstrated the depth of the Wildcats rushing attack, as Zach Green stepped up to carry for 130 yards with Nick Wilson injured and J.J. Taylor ejected for targeting.
Washington State counters with its ballyhooed "speed defense," the brainchild of defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Grinch emphasizes fast playmakers over big bodies — like Hercules Mata'afa, a defensive tackle who goes just 250 pounds, but who bursts through seams on the offensive line with an aptitude unmatched at his position.
3. Dictating pace early
Washington State has won the last two against Arizona, including its 2015 visit to Arizona Stadium — a much more competitive game than the 2016 encounter, but one in which the Cougars started to pile on early.
In its current winning streak, Arizona has held early leads rather than playing from behind. Such is the best course of action for an offense predicated on the run, but it's especially important against a Washington State team that improves offensively as games progress.
Whether against Boise State, USC or in last week's shutout of Colorado, the Cougars offense typically gets clicking in the middle quarters. If Washington State comes out scoring early, that could doom the Wildcats.
Washington State rebounded nicely from a bizarre blowout loss at Cal on Oct. 13, locking down Colorado's offense and getting effective, if not spectacular, production out of the passing attack in a cold downpour.
The Cougars remain tied atop the Pac-12 North with games against Stanford and Washington still to come. They have an outside chance of factoring into the College Football Playoff discussion, but they need to avoid another hiccup. Playing Arizona on the road seems the most likely candidate for such a stumble, given the Wildcats' resurgence of late.
Khalil Tate has been excellent, not only in the run game but also in delivering explosive passes as the defense allows. He's averaging at least one 50-plus-yard passing play per appearance, a weapon the Wildcats will need against Washington State's outstanding run defense.
Arizona also needs to generate turnovers. Cal got to Luke Falk for five interceptions to turn the tide of that game, and with the Wildcats coming in ranked ninth nationally in that category, Arizona could deliver those necessary takeaways for the upset.