TUCSON, Ariz. — A lot has happened since the last time the Washington State football team faced Arizona in 2010. Both programs fired underperforming coaches and hired high-profile replacements known for high-octane offenses.
While the bowl-eligible Wildcats (6-3 overall, 3-3 Pac-12 Conference) appear further along in their rebuilding process than the Cougars (4-5, 2-4), WSU can take a big step on the road to respectability with a road win Saturday. Still, the Cougars aren’t treating the game any differently.
“Scheme-wise we’re not doing anything differently,” freshman wide receiver River Cracraft said. “You’ve got to win your individual battles. That’s a big thing Coach (Mike) Leach takes pride in. It’s a different vibe around the team, and we’re ready for this week, and we’re ready to attack it.”
A win would guarantee the Cougars’ best record since 2007. It also would represent discernible growth for a program that needs signs of progress to show to fans, boosters and recruits.
There are plenty of reasons to think the Cougars can do it.
While the Wildcats boast a respectable record under Rich Rodriguez, they have yet to beat a team with a winning record. And after playing three consecutive night games, the Cougars finally will play during the day.
“The day game better duplicates their day,” Leach said. “They may get up and lift and then go to meetings and practice, which is later than 11, but they’re active by 11. ... In this day and age, you don’t have any control over when your games are if you want to be on TV. There was a time when you could set your schedule and play when you wanted to, but that’s long gone.”
The Cougars also have the benefit of 16 days to prepare for the game, while Arizona is coming off last weekend’s emotional 31-26 home loss to UCLA. WSU’s extended break is the result of a bye week after a Thursday night game against Arizona State on Halloween.
“It’s a unique situation; never heard of it, never seen it,” Leach said. “So we recruited, we game-planned, got some good work with our young guys.”
It’s also possible that the game will be a so-called “trap game” for the Wildcats, who face No. 6 Oregon next week and No. 21 Arizona State on Nov. 30.
WSU might be able to catch Arizona off guard, at least initially. But there will be challenges for the Cougars.
Arizona features one of the nation’s best running backs in Ka’Deem Carey, whose 152.6 yards a game lead the Pac-12. The Cougars also will have to adjust to facing a left-handed quarterback (B.J. Denker) for the first time this season.
“Some of the plays will go in a different direction,” WSU linebackers coach Ken Wilson said. “He’s not a big guy, but he’s deceptive. He can outrun you. He has got some good shake to him, he knows how to avoid big hits, and he knows how to get first downs with his feet.”
Beating any Pac-12 team on the road is a tall task, and the Wildcats aren’t favored by 11 points because the pros in Las Vegas are fond of losing money. But Arizona likely will be the Cougars’ easiest opponent since they beat California on Oct. 5 — their last win.
WASHINGTON STATE (4-5, 2-4 PAC-12) AT ARIZONA (6-3, 3-3)
11 a.m., Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Ariz.
TV: Pac-12 Network. Radio: 770-AM.
The series: Arizona leads, 25-13. The Wildcats have won five consecutive games against WSU. The Cougars’ last victory in the series was 20-19 in 2004 at Arizona.
KEYS TO A WSU VICTORY
Don’t let Ka’Deem Carey run wild: The Wildcats’ star running back averages a conference-leading 152.6 yards rushing a game, and the Cougars should expect him to hit the century mark. But WSU can’t allow Carey to dictate the game with his steady, methodical runs, or the Cougars will be hard-pressed to keep Arizona off the field. While quarterback B.J. Denker has improved lately, Arizona’s offense starts and ends with Carey.
Put some points on the board: It might seem obvious, but WSU must get in the end zone. The program’s calling card is an Air Raid offense that’s supposed to guarantee shootouts, even in losses. The Cougars have been held to 24 points or fewer in three of their past five games. That won’t do against the Wildcats.
Limit the turnovers: Washington State has 27 turnovers this season, worst in the conference. The Cougars can’t afford to give Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez extra possessions. Bad field position after turnovers has killed WSU in games this year.
Forget about a bowl game: The Cougars would love to go to their first bowl game since 2003, and not just for the bowl gifts. As WSU attempts to rebuild its program, the exposure of a bowl game and the extra practices would be a big boost. This game is one of WSU’s last chances to pick up one of the two wins it needs for bowl eligibility, but if the Cougars are concerned with external rewards, they might play tentatively.
Jacob Thorpe, The Spokesman-Review