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What to watch for when first-place Arizona hosts Washington

arizona-wildcats-washington-huskies-preview-sumlin-petersen-fourth-quarter-2019-pac-12-football Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

It’s been five years since the Arizona Wildcats last had a five-game winning streak, opening the 2014 season with a 5-0 record. The streak was actually six, as they beat Boston College in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl the previous December.

That 2014 team went on to win the Pac-12’s South Division title, though not without some good fortune both from themselves and other teams. That 5-0 start included the Hill Mary comeback win over Cal, while later in the season a 27-26 home win over Washington that was aided by the Huskies fumbling with 1:23 left while trying to run out the clock.

Arizona (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) hasn’t beaten Washington (4-2, 1-2) since, but if it can knock off the Huskies at 8 p.m. Saturday we may be looking at another South Division champion.

Here’s what to look for when the Wildcats and Huskies tangle at Arizona Stadium:

Run game with a different name

Arizona is second in the Pac-12 in rushing, averaging 221 yards per game. The Wildcats were tops in the league on the ground before the last two weeks, when they managed only 99 yards against UCLA and 83 at Colorado.

At least that’s how it looked on paper.

“I think our numbers are a little bit hidden,” coach Kevin Sumlin said on Monday. “The screen (passes), the throws that are going on the perimeter, those are just an extension of the run plays for us.”

Against Colorado, Arizona turned to short swing passes and bubble screens to make up for an overloaded box, while vs. UCLA Grant Gunnell’s first two “throws” were jet sweeps to Brian Casteel that officially count as pass plays because the ball was tossed forward rather than backward.

While the defenses Arizona has faced the last two games has predicated such an approach, so has not having junior J.J. Taylor available. While the Wildcats have several capable ball carriers, Taylor remains the top option who Sumlin said brings so much more to the table than any of his teammates.

“J.J. is a patient runner, he’s not just a one-cut runner he can make people miss,” Sumlin said. “He makes our line better. J.J.’s a guy that can clean up a lot of different things when there is a missed block or there is a guy on the edge or there is a mistake up front. We do miss him, we need him. We’re going to need him to be the J.J. of last year from here on out.”

Taylor missed the UCLA game with an ankle injury suffered midway through the Sept. 14 win over Texas Tech. He started at Colorado and had a 4-yard run on the first play from scrimmage but did not take another snap.

Preventing the pass

Washington QB Jacob Eason has thrown for 1,449 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, completing 65.7 percent of his throws with only three interceptions in 181 attempts. But the Georgia transfer is coming off his worst game as a Husky, completing just 16 of 36 throws for 208 yards in a 23-13 loss at Stanford.

The Cardinal sacked Eason twice and were credited with six quarterback hurries, forcing him to make bad throws on the run rather than sit in the pocket and show off his cannon of an arm.

If only Arizona was capable of getting such pressure on an opposing passer.

The Wildcats are 128th out of 130 FBS team in pass defense, allowing 336.2 yards per game. They’ve managed only four sacks in five games, with three of their four credited QB hurries coming last week at Colorado.

Taking the ball away

Arizona has 11 takeaways in 2019, second-most in the Pac-12, but against Colorado it didn’t force a turnover for the first time this season. That didn’t end up hurting the Wildcats, though being minus-1 in the turnover game—thanks to Khalil Tate’s ill-advised interception late in the first half—wasn’t ideal.

Now comes a Washington team that has forced at least 20 turnovers every season under sixth-year coach Chris Petersen. This season the Huskies have nine takeaways, getting three apiece in wins over Hawaii, BYU and USC. They were minus-3 in the other three games, including losses to Cal and Stanford.

Fresh in the fourth

When Colorado kicked a 20-yard field goal with 11:29 left in the fourth quarter last Saturday, giving the Buffaloes a 30-28 lead, it marked the first time an Arizona opponent had scored in the final period since NAU added a pair of garbage-time touchdowns against the Wildcats on Sept. 7.

Nathan Tilford’s game-winning 5-yard TD run less than five minutes later upped Arizona’s fourth-quarter scoring edge the past three games to 29-3.

For the season, Arizona has outscored its four FBS opponents 32-13 in the fourth, that 3.25 average 12th-best in the country per Washington is third-best, yielding six fourth-quarter points against five FBS foes.

“Our team is in really, really good physical condition,” Sumlin said, crediting strength coach Brian Johnson for his offseason program. “These guys are confident in that fourth quarter because they know they’re in really good physical condition and they trust each other.”

Counting crowds

More than 50,000 fans are expected for Saturday night’s game, which would be only the third time in the last three seasons they’d have a crowd that long.

The previous two times, to start and end the 2018 campaign, didn’t end well. Arizona lost 28-23 to BYU to open the Sumlin era and then blew a 19-point fourth-quarter lead to ASU to miss out on a bowl game.

Since 2010 the Wildcats are 16-12 at Arizona Stadium when 50,000-plus are in attendance, losing at least one such game every year but 2017 (because the largest home crowd was 48,380).

A 50,000-plus crowd would be a major jump from the last announced home attendance of 38,283 against UCLA. The last time the home crowd improved by more than 10,000 between games was in 2014, when 56,754 came out for a visit from USC after 45,595 were on hand for the Hill Mary comeback against Cal. It didn’t hurt that in between the Wildcats shocked Oregon on the road, vaulting them to 10th in the Associated Press poll (only to lose 28-26 to the Trojans).