With their slim Pac-12 South hopes still hanging on, and coming off two straight victories, the Arizona Wildcats (5-5, 4-3) face their toughest test of the year when they travel to Pullman to face the Washington State Cougars (9-1, 6-1). Wazzu is up to eighth in the CFP rankings, and has been impressive all season long.
With the road challenge looming, we talked to Brian Anderson of our sister site CougCenter to see what to expect on Saturday. Here’s our Q&A.
This first post-Falk season was supposed to be a rebuild on the Palouse. How did Mike Leach turn this team into a Playoff contender?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think even the coaching staff knows exactly what they did. Coach Leach all but left in the off-season for Tennessee, which cascaded into a near entire turnover of the coaching staff. Notably, the running backs coach left for Oregon, joining up with another former Leach assistant in Joe Salavea, the high-energy recruiter coaching outside linebackers left for UCLA, the strength coach left for the Chicago Bears and the hot-name defensive coordinator got a pay raise from The Ohio State University to be a glorified back-up to Greg Schiano.
For all intents and purposes, it looked very much like the height Coach Leach and the Cougs reached in 2016 and 2017 would be the high water mark for his tenure.
Add to that -- which really shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as those other things at all but has to be said somewhere -- presumed starting quarterback Tyler Hilinski tragically took his own life and was found by a couple of his friends and teammates.
I think what we’re seeing now is a team that became very close getting through all that and has a lot of trust in one another. And more surprisingly, they’ve found a way to make this whole run a lot of fun. The talent was there to be a good team -- nothing on paper suggested a great team -- but these guys have been playing at an incredibly high level more consistently than we’ve seen on the Palouse in a long time. Coach Leach should get a ton of credit for that and the senior leadership, and players themselves, should get even more.
The whole good to (potentially) great jump was probably ignited by a transfer quarterback no one had heard of. Which might be the most improbable piece of this whole thing.
Gardner Minshew seems to be the perfect Leach quarterback. What makes him so special?
His energy. You can tell there’s a different feel to the offense with him taking snaps, that the receivers are playing with more juice. WSU’s offense is not the monotonous Papercut Machine it occasionally felt like when Luke Falk operated it. It takes a certain kind of bravado, moxy, swagger, [insert cliche here] to rock a mustache as a joke in camp to lighten things up and keep wearing it through a now Heisman Campaign worthy season. And as cliche as it is, you can tell certain guys have “it”, right? Khalil Tate is one of those guys. That’s what makes Gardner Minshew special. And it hardly ever works out that a graduate transfer ends up exactly where he’s supposed to be, which makes this season all the more improbable. Minshew came to WSU for a last shot at playing ball before a coaching career and might be playing himself into the NFL draft and a trip to New York.
What makes him good is a set of pocket skills that align perfectly with the Air Raid offense. He’s not overly fast or a dangerous running threat, but his pocket mobility is off the charts good. Wazzu’s low sack rate is partially due to the offensive line, partially to the quick passing game, and partially to his ability to buy time in a throwing position with his eyes downfield, escaping when he needs to. He’s also got a very quick release and is highly accurate with moderate-to-good arm strength.
Biggest of all, he moves through the progression quickly but not in a hurry and makes great decisions. He’s been running some version of the Air Raid since grade school but I don’t suspect the coaching staff even figured he’d be operating Leach’s version at this level, this quickly.
Tracy Claeys has picked up right where Alex Grinch left off. How important is that great defense to this team?
The offense is pretty good, ranking 15th in S&P+, but it’s not Get-In-A-Shootout-Every-Week-And-Win good. WSU wouldn’t be having near the success it’s having without a defense that can be relied on for timely stops, at the very least. The Cougs aren’t very big up front on the defensive line but they’re as fast and swarm with an almost overwhelming intensity. Claeys deserves some Broyles’ Trophy consideration with what he’s been able to do for the Cougs. He came in and didn’t make the defense learn anything new, the way he figured it’d be easier for him to learn their language and schemes than for all of them to learn his. So, you’re seeing Claeys scheme calls for a defense that isn’t really his Big Ten Brand and that he only started learning last spring.
Most impressive are his in-game adjustments. They had a plan going into USC and got smoked on the first drive. He changed it up on the fly after that and was able to lock things down a lot better. Similarly with the Stanford game, holding the Cardinal to 10 points in the second half. As great as Alex Grinch was developing the defensive scheme, he had a little trouble in this area. The game in Tuscon last year was a good example of that. Grinch wanted to be more aggressive and schemed to fill-and-replace at the linebacker level with a strong safety. Khalil Tate annihilated that game plan almost instantly and they never adjusted with it.
Who is a lesser known impact player on offense Wildcat fans should know about?
It’s a little harder to be lesser known on WSU’s offense, 10 players have over 20 receptions on the season. I’d go with No. 85 Calvin Jackson Jr., our X receiver behind Davontaveon Martin, split out to the left. The name might be familiar for any of your readers that watched Last Chance U on Independence Community College last season. He’s gotten a few receptions in most games this season and broke out a little against Colorado last week, catching 5 for 53 yards. He appears to have found his footing in the offense and could be more of a factor going forward.
The more obvious ones are No. 8 Jamire Calvin and No. 21 Max Borghi. Wazzu’s inside receivers are really fast and Calvin is taking the same position River Cracraft played as a possession receiver and turning it into a legitimate deep threat. Borghi should probably be a household name for PAC-12 fans by the end of the season. He’s a true freshman running back that’s averaging over five yards per carry with six TDs, and has over 30 receptions on the season with another four TDs through the air.
What about on defense?
No. 27 Willie Taylor III at the Rush Defensive End. Taylor is a converted defensive back and can get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. Logan Tago, Nnamdi Oguayo, and Dominic Silvels are probably the more familiar-looking names along the defensive front and Taylor has been really impressive in his first season at the position alongside those guys.
No. 26 Hunter Dale is a stud at Nickel, too.
What are some things visiting Arizona fans should do in Pullman?
Are some of you really coming to Pullman...in November? Luckily the weather isn’t supposed to be too bad for this one.
Black Cypress is a really good spot for dinner downtown. If you want to check out the college bars on the hill, go to The Coug and Valhalla. Both will probably boo you when you come through the door but it’s all in good spirits. If you walk from there toward Martin Stadium you’ll come across the Hollingberry Field House, which is a huge indoor tailgating area with food vendors, tables and chairs, alcohol, TVs, and is an easy five minute walk to the Martin Stadium gate you’d want to enter. If you walk past the Field House and outdoor track and cross Stadium Way you’ll be in the prime RV lot tailgating area. Most Cougs are very welcoming and will probably give you whatever they got on the grill and in their cooler just for making the trip up to Pullman. Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe is also out that way, which is where you can find some Cougar Gold or my personal favorite Crimson Fire cheese.
Lastly, what’s your score prediction for the game?
With a (near) 10-point spread and O/U at 62.5, Vegas sees the game ending somewhere near 36-26 in favor of the Cougs. S&P+ is slightly more favorable for WSU, predicting a 14.9-point margin. I would expect Tate is as healthy as he’s been all season and more comfortable with Mazzone’s system than in any previous game. That makes me lean a little more on higher scoring and a closer outcome.
WSU 44 - 38 Arizona