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What to watch for when Arizona visits Washington on Saturday

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arizona-wildcats-tight-ends-depth-chart-2021-wolma-lines-paopao-marshall-miranda-powers Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats came heartbreakingly close to pulling off a major upset last week, ultimately losing 34-30 to USC in their long-delayed 2020 season opener. Now comes an even tougher test: playing on the road against a solid Washington Huskies team in Seattle.

This is Arizona’s first trip to Seattle since 2015, and it has not won at Husky Stadium since 2007. Washington, which is coming off a 27-21 victory over Oregon State in its opener, will be playing just its second game under new coach Jimmy Lake, who was Chris Petersen’s defensive coordinator dating back to their time at Boise State.

Here’s what to be on the lookout for when the Wildcats and Huskies clash on Saturday night at 6 p.m. MST on FOX:

Regroup and rebound

Arizona led USC with 1:35 left last week, only to see the Trojans march downfield and score a game-winning touchdown with just 25 seconds remaining. It was a painful way to end a game that had so much buildup to it, being the Wildcats’ first contest in nearly a year, and the emotions from that opener were intense.

Kicker Lucas Havrisik, who had his first career three-field goal game against the Trojans, said he lost his voice cheering on his team during the first quarter. And coach Kevin Sumlin indicated that after the loss he noticed tears in the eyes of many players.

All of that is understandable. But those feelings cannot linger, not with another game already here and with only a few more left in this short season.

How Arizona players in that first quarter in Seattle should dictate the rest of the game. Slow starts have been a huge problem for the Wildcats during the Sumlin era, particularly on the road, but they avoided falling in a big hole last week despite turning the ball over just three plays into the game and falling behind 7-0 less than three minutes into the game.

Defending the run

Arizona allowed 181.6 rushing yards per game and 4.75 yards per carry in 2019, both second-worst in the Pac-12. Conference foes averaged 4.9 yards per carry and 205.2 per game, with Washington one of six league opponents to top the 200-yard mark on the ground against Arizona.

The Wildcats gave up 173 rushing yards last week to USC, but also registered eight tackles for loss, their most since a Nov. 2018 win over Colorado.

That beefed up defensive line looked solid in the opener, with graduate transfers Aaron Blackwell and Roy Lopez both making instant impacts, but like the rest of the defense it wore down in the second half and started giving up big plays. Sumlin said that was partly due to him not rotating in as many players up front as he would have liked, meaning freshmen Paris Shand, Regen Terry and Dion Wilson Jr. should get more run.

Washington is going to want to establish the run, as it did against OSU when it ran 51 times for 267 yards for 267 yards mostly out of heavy packages that included multiple tight ends.

Managing the touches

While Sumlin was happy with his team’s offensive output against USC, gaining 444 yards and averaging 5.8 yards per play, the offensive diversity could have been better. It didn’t help that three members of the deep wide receiver corps—redshirt juniors Brian Casteel and Drew Dixon and freshman Dyelan Miller—were unavailable due to injury, though Casteel and Dixon are expected to play Saturday.

Eight different players caught passes from Grant Gunnell, with Stanley Berryhill III getting eight receptions (including several on Arizona’s final drive) and Tayvian Cunningham hauling in five. Projected top targets Boobie Curry and Jamarye Joiner only had two catches apiece.

The handoff distribution also wasn’t what was hoped, with senior Gary Brightwell carrying it 21 times to just three for sophomore Michael Wiley. Sumlin said that was mostly because of how Brightwell (112 yards, 5.3 per carry) fared, but look for he and Wiley to both get into double figures in touches including receptions.

Elemental effects

It’s the rainy season in Seattle—when is it not, really?—yet the forecast for Saturday night only calls for a 10 percent chance of rain. That could change easily in a place where moisture is as plentiful as sunshine is in Tucson, so Arizona was expected to spend extra time working with “wet balls” in practice.

It will also be in the low 40s or upper 30s during the game, a drastic difference from the record high temperatures Arizona has been practicing in of late.

Ball security will be key, as usual, particularly on special teams.

Avoiding infamy

A loss at Washington, which based on the 11.5-point line is expected, would be the ninth consecutive for Arizona. That’s never happened before in program history.

The current eight-game skid, which began last October with a 51-27 home loss to Washington, is tied with a similar streak in 2016 for the longest in UA history. There was a 10-game winless streak in 1956-57 that included a tie.

Already having dropped an opener for the third year in a row, itself a program first, a defeat would mark Arizona’s second 0-2 start in three years under Sumlin.