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Arizona’s pass defense faces major challenge against Washington State

<span data-author="5158751">arizona-wildcats-passing-defense-washington-state-cougars-gameplan </span> James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Leach is not interested in his teams being balanced on offense. That was the case when he was at Texas Tech and has been even more so with the Washington State Cougars.

Wazzu averages 21.7 runs per game, a number that includes sacks. That’s almost seven rushes fewer than any other team in the country.

In a September win over Utah, the Cougars had just 13 carries for zero yards. A few days later Leach was asked about he was asked about offensive balance, prompting the outspoken coach to go on a bit of a rant.

“There’s nothing balanced about the 50 percent run, 50 percent pass because that’s 50 percent stupid,” Leach said. “When you have five skill positions, if all five of them are contributing to the offensive effort, then that’s balanced. But this notion that if you hand it to one guy 50 percent of the time and you throw it to a combination of two guys 50 percent and you’re really balanced, then you proudly pat yourself on the back and tell yourself that ... well then you’re delusional.”

So how is Wazzu (9-1, 6-1 Pac-12) ranked No. 8 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, a three-point loss at USC away from being unbeaten, despite a run game that produces only 77.7 yards per game? Because of how it throws the ball, more specifically how much it does.

The Cougars are first in FBS in passing yards (3,923), completions (373) and attempts (537). They have thrown it at least all but once this season, their 319 yards in the season opener at Wyoming their lowest output through the air.

Expect no different when Arizona (5-5, 4-3) goes to Pullman on Saturday night. Wazzu threw it 84 times (for 602 yards) last year in Tucson, a game the Wildcats won 58-37, and in the embarrassing 69-7 loss in Pullman in 2016 the Cougars were 47 of 52 for 474 yards and six touchdowns.

It will be a major challenge for the defense but one players say they’re prepared for.

“We have to go and do our job like any other Saturday,” said cornerback Lorenzo Burns, who is third in the Pac-12 with 11 pass breakups. “Fifty or sixty times a game is going to allow me to make more plays on the ball, more targets my way.”

Wazzu doesn’t have a go-to receiver, it has eight. No, seriously. Eight Cougars have 24 or more receptions, and the most-frequent target is running back James Williams with 63.

“They thrive on being in space,” safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles said. “They always find space, they always find holes in the defense. They read what the defense gives them. We have to do a good job of taking away those holes that they sit down in.”

It would also help if Arizona can get pressure on senior quarterback Gardner Minshew, who leads FBS with 3,852 yards to go with 29 TDs. But that’s easier said than done, as the combination of quick passing and a strong offensive line has only resulted in seven sacks yielded.

Defensive end JB Brown still plans to try and get sacks, but he knows there are other ways for the defensive line to contribute.

“As you’re getting the pass rush, get your hands in the pass lane, try to get a batted ball,” Brown said. “In any way try to be disruptive.”