The stakes in Arizona Stadium this Saturday night may not be as high as those inside the Thunderdome, but for Arizona and Washington they might as well be.
The 'Cats and Dawgs mirror each other in several key ways. They come in with identical 3-3 records. Both reached the top 25 for a week. All six of their combined losses are against ranked opponents. These are teams on the brink, and Saturday is either a major step over that brink and toward a bowl game, or a long slide down.
"It's not a clean slate," UA head coach Rich Rodriguez said of his team's .500 during his weekly press conference. "Every conference game is really important. Our guys understand that."
The Wildcats have yet to win a Pac-12 game under Rodriguez, currently on a three-game skid with losses to No. 2 Oregon, No. 8 Oregon State and No. 22 Stanford in succession. Though the Huskies suffered back-to-back losses to Oregon and USC, Washington proved its mettle in knocking off Stanford last month.
UW's 3-3 record is deceiving, a point Rodriguez addressed.
"You have to treat them as team that is going to be ranked by the end of the season," he said. "They've beaten a ranked team. They're without a doubt one of the most athletic teams in our league."
Rodriguez's comment about a ranking in UW's future can be attributed to the Huskies playing a much more manageable second half slate. UW have already played a schedule that could result in the rare three BCS opponent match-ups in USC, Oregon and LSU, an early season slate similar to Arizona's last September when it drew Oklahoma State, UO and SU. UW still has yet to face Oregon State, which also has played like a potential BCS bowl team.
A slate so daunting makes the games against comparable competition, like Saturdy at Arizona, all the more vital. And that's exactly the same position UA finds itself in.
There are key deviations between these teams though, which will ultimately determine Saturday's outcome.
Arizona has successfully established its rushing offense in recent weeks, courtesy of Ka'Deem Carey's emergence. The sophomore has been among the most elite running backs in the conference. Conversely, UW has struggled finding a reliable ground attack with star and Wildcat killer Chris Polk gone. The Huskies' combined rush yardage is only 116 more than Carey has accrued by himself.
However, UW has thrived defensively. In an about-face from a season ago, the new defensive staff Steve Sarkisian assembled has the Dawgs yielding 10 points per game fewer than a season ago. UW held Stanford without an offensive touchdown, and last week it frustrated the USC offense in holding it to its second lowest output of the season.
Cornerback Desmond Trufant is one of the best in the conference, if not the nation. He went toe-to-toe with USC star Marqise Lee last week, holding him to just 32 yards receiving. This week promises to be a challenge for the Wildcats' surprisingly pass-happy offensive scheme.
Arizona's defense has struggled mightily, particularly in second halves -- the result of lacking depth. Rodriguez is hopeful a bye week helps in that phase.
"We had around 13 starters that were out last week and six or seven of them didn't play in the last game," he said. "With one more week, I'm hoping we can get a couple of them back. They should be hungry to play a game."
Saturday is a slump-busting opportunity for one of two struggling units. The Widlcat defense is giving up nearly 33 points per game, 47 per in its last three. UW quarterback Keith Price, widely regarded the Pac's second best at his position entering the season, has thrown just seven touchdowns with six interceptions and completed fewer than 62 percent of his passes. One of the two sides will break through.
Home field advantage could prove particularly meaningful. Since a four-year stretch from 2003 to 2007 wherein the visitor won every meeting, the home team has always come out on top in this series. UW pulled away in the fourth quarter last year, and broke Wildcat fans hearts in 2009 with Mason Foster's Immaculate Interception. The past two meetings in Tucson, the Wildcats have won by a combined 64 points.