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What to watch for in the Arizona-Washington State game

arizona-wildcats-washington-state-cougars-storylines-score-tv-channel-live-stream Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

After a week off to rest, recover, reconnect with family and, to a lesser degree, remain focused on the task ahead, the Arizona Wildcats are back in action Saturday night with a game at Pac-12 North leader Washington State.

The Wildcats (5-5, 4-3) head to Pullman still alive in the South Division race, though that may no longer be the case when they kick off depending on how Utah does at Colorado earlier in the day. Arizona’s players will keep an eye on that game but know that their own contest is what’s really important.

“We’ve got to take care of our business before we can worry about the Pac-12 South,” defensive end JB Brown said earlier this week.

This will be Arizona’s first game in the Palouse since the 2016 affair that started bad and just kept getting worse, the Wildcats losing 69-7. Can they get revenge for that beatdown?

Here’s what to look for on Saturday night.

Back to work

Arizona was one of just six FBS teams—out of 130—that had to play 10 consecutive weeks to start the season, but in hindsight its bye might have come at the perfect time. It enabled the Wildcats to get healthy right before a key two-game stretch that could lead to a Pac-12 South title or, at the very least, a bowl bid.

It also wasn’t bad for the coaching staff to have the opportunity to recruit on a weekend when many high school teams were either in the playoffs or at the ends of their regular seasons. That late contact could go a long way toward how Arizona does during the early signing period next month.

But as great as a week off can be from a physical standpoint, may it also have a negative effect in terms of stunting momentum? After all, the Wildcats were playing their best just before the break in wins over Oregon and Colorado.

“Just like (coach Kevin) Sumlin always says, we’ve got to get our mindset back on track,” wide receiver Shawn Poindexter said. “Last week we had a very relaxing week. I got back into my routine pretty fast. You’ve just got to shake the rust off.”

Arizona is 4-5 since 2010 in games after a week off, 2-4 when those post-bye matchups come on the road. One of those victories was last season when Khalil Tate burst onto the scene in a 45-42 win at Colorado.

Sumlin went 2-5 after byes while at Texas A&M, losing the last four, though twice those games were against juggernaut Alabama teams.

Stopping the pass

Well, that’s not really going to be possible against Washington State. The Cougars are the No. 1 passing team in the country, averaging 392.3 yards and throwing it 53.7 times per game.

It’s not about preventing the Cougars from throwing the ball but rather making sure that when they do—and they will, since running the ball just isn’t a frequent option—they don’t get much from those passes. WSU’s 7.3 yards per attempt is tied for 72nd nationally, indicative of a team with such volume, though its 160 pass plays of 10-plus yards are eight more than any other FBS school.

“Film study is the most important,” said cornerback Lorenzo Burns, who has 11 pass breakups. “They like to do a lot of things that are pretty simple.”

The way to impact WSU’s pass attack is threefold: disrupt the backfield, defend without fouling and tackle well. The last could be the biggest issue, since Arizona’s tackling has been problematic at times this season.

“Tackling will be very important, like it is every week,” safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles said. “We have to make sure we can track the ball, take good angles, and wrap up.”

Since Mike Leach got to WSU in 2012, the fewest passing yards Arizona has allowed in their matchups was 319. The last four meetings: 2,077 yards and 18 touchdowns on 277 attempts.

Keeping composed

Arizona is the most-penalized team in the Pac-12, getting flagged 81 times (not included ones that were declined or negated) for 771 yards. The Wildcats have blown past their penalty numbers from 2017, when in 13 games they were hit with 68 flags for 705 yards.

One area where the Wildcats will need to be razor-sharp is with their cadence and timing on offense. Washington State is known for being able to get offensive lines to jump or be so disorganized they can’t get a snap off before the play clock runs out. A few weeks back Oregon had a false start, two delay of games and a botched snap on its first drive at WSU.

“They do a lot to try to confuse the offenses, with their slanting and stunting before the snap,” left guard Cody Creason said. “They’re scheme is really good.”

For all the attention WSU’s offense gets, the Cougars are in the top four in the Pac-12 in all major defensive categories.

#Pac12AfterDark (and maybe below freezing)

Arizona’s final night game of the regular season will no doubt be its coldest, the temperature at kickoff expected to be in the low 30s. By the fourth quarter it should be in the 20s, something very few Wildcat players will have experienced before.

“I’m from Michigan, so it’s going to be like playing in my backyard for me,” tight end Bryce Wolma said.

Brown, from Long Beach, said he’s never seen snow before and would love to play in it. He doesn’t expect the cold to have much of an impact once adrenaline kicks in.

It may help that, through a stroke of luck, it was much cooler than normal earlier this week in Tucson. It was also windy on Monday and Tuesday, helped to add to the relative chill.

“We’re just preparing for the cold,” Poindexter said. “Guys wearing their long sleeves to practice, that way when we get into the guy it’s not something new.”

Payback time?

As mentioned in the intro, Arizona’s last trip to Pullman was a forgettable one. Yet for the current Wildcats who were on that 2016 team that lost 69-7, that’s easier said than done.

“Whenever you get beat like that, you never forget an experience like that,” Creason said.

In some ways, Arizona got its revenge last year when rolling past Wazzu 58-37 at home. And as bad as the 2016 result was, prior to that the Wildcats had won four straight at Martin Stadium.

“We owe them something, going back into Pullman, but I’m more worried about putting wins together, trying to see what we can do as a team,” Poindexter said.