The Arizona Wildcats (5-5, 4-3) head north to the Palouse this weekend to face the 8th-ranked Washington State Cougars (9-1, 6-1). Wazzu has looked impressive all season and is heavily favored over Arizona on Saturday night.
Here’s a look at the key WSU players to watch to see if it can get its 10th win.
Gardner Minshew, QB
Minshew is the quintessential Mike Leach quarterback, and he is the key cog in the Coug attack.
Coming into the season, it was widely assumed Washington State would take a step back after three of the most successful seasons in Pullman in over a decade. This was because star quarterback Luke Falk had graduated and backup Tyler Hilinski tragically took his own life in the offseason. In came an East Carolina transfer, Minshew, and it was clear Leach had found another gunslinger for his offense from the get-go.
Minshew has continued to put up gaudy numbers while improving his game all season. He’s already thrown for 3,852 yards in 10 games, putting him in range of the 5,000-yard single season barrier that has only been eclipsed 15 times. While he’s thrown an astonishing 523 times in those same 10 games, that’s still an impressive number of yards. He has 29 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, and has completed just shy of 70 percent of those attempts.
If Arizona wants to remain in the Pac-12 South race and foil Wazzu’s dream season, Minshew will need to be stopped, and nobody has been able to do that yet.
James Williams, RB
In Leach’s pioneering style of the Air Raid, running backs are very rarely used in the normal way. Nonetheless, Williams has found a way to become an impact player, and has become a huge problem for WSU offenses.
Williams numbers hardly leap off the screen, but that is very much a symptom of being in a Leach offense. On just 103 attempts, he has 437 yards this season. That still doesn’t look too impressive even considering his nine touchdowns, considering it adds up to 4.2 yards per attempt. Williams’ true impact is revealed when one looks at his receiving stats, where he has 506 yards and a team-leading 63 catches.
It is the most Mike Leach thing possible for his leading runner to actually be more of a threat in the passing game. However he’s being used, Arizona will need to be ready for Williams to make his mark on the game.
Easop Winston Jr., WR
Normally, I try and highlight two offensive players, two defenders and a member of the special teams unit. Against Washington State though, I’d be remiss not to mention Winston in addition to Minshew and Williams.
A JUCO product from San Francisco who redshirted last year, Winston has blossomed into one of the best receivers in a Pac-12 full of them. He’s racked up 561 receiving yards, good for second most on the team. He also has 44 receptions, which ranks fourth on the team, and a team-leading seven touchdown catches. When Minshew wants a play that is almost guaranteed to explode for a ton of yardage, chances are he’ll be looking for Winston.
Arizona’s secondary will be incredibly busy on Saturday no matter what. If Winston gets going though, the burden may be too much for the defense.
Peyton Pelluer, LB
If one is looking for leadership on the Cougar defense, look no further than Pelluer, a fifth-year senior who patrols the middle of the defense for Wazzu.
Pelluer played significant portions of his first three seasons from 2014-16. In 2017, he was injured and out for the year in just the third game. While that may have been a devastating blow in his senior season, he was granted a medical redshirt, and is now back to terrorizing opposing offenses in his fifth year.
Pelluer leads the team in tackles by a wide margin, with 71 total, 44 of which are solo tackles. He’s also second in sacks and tackles for loss, with 3.5 and seven, respectively. Pelluer has also proven himself effective in the passing game, defensing three passes, and on top of all that he’s both forced and recovered a fumble.
Pelluer will be the primary focus of the Arizona offense this Saturday, and he’ll help determine if Wazzu can avenge their loss in Tucson last year.
Jahad Woods, LB
I mentioned that Pelluer leads the team in tackles by a healthy margin. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean the second-place tackler on Washington State isn’t a force to be reckoned with.
Woods has far less experience than his fellow linebacker Pelluer, being just a sophomore. Still, he played in all 13 games last year, and has played in all 10 thus far in 2018. In those ten games, he has 57 tackles, with four of them coming behind the line of scrimmage and three of those being sacks. While Woods doesn’t have the coverage resume of Pelluer, he has an interception and a single pass defensed. His real value, though, comes in his hard-hitting, which has contributed to three forced fumbles, one of which he recovered.
Washington State has become renowned for its defense under Alex Grinch and now Tracy Claeys. Their dynamic duo in the linebacker corps show that Wazzu is more than just a Leach offense and is a real Playoff contender.