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What to watch for when Arizona hosts Washington on Friday night

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arizona-wildcats-preview-football-washington-huskies-odds-pac12-streak-defense-plummer-fisch-lake Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats begin the second half of the 2021 season on Friday night when they host the Washington Huskies at Arizona Stadium.

According to DraftKings SportsBook, Washington (2-4, 1-2 Pac-12) is favored by 17.5 points despite coming to Tucson on a 2-game skid. Then again, the UA (0-6, 0-3) has that beaten nine-fold, bringing an 18-game losing streak into the contest.

UW was actually the team to start Arizona on its winless run, rallying in the second half to blow past the Wildcats 51-27 in Tucson in October 2019. The Huskies also blitzed Arizona in Seattle last November, jumping out to a 37-0 lead before winning 44-27.

Here’s what to watch for in Friday night’s tilt:

Last next man up

First it was Gunner Cruz, then it was Will Plummer, then it was Jordan McCloud. Then Cruz, after McCloud suffered season-ending injuries against UCLA, and now it’s Plummer again following Cruz’s season-ending thumb injury at Colorado.

But despite being down to one scholarship quarterback, Plummer has not been sealed in bubble wrap in the leadup to this game. And he’s not going to let the injuries to his teammates change how he plays in his third career start, second this season.

“I’m gonna play the way I do, I’ll try to be smarter on plays that I can be, but they’re gonna get the same guy out of me that they are expecting,” Plummer said this week.

His last start did not go well, throwing two interceptions—one returned for a touchdown—in the loss to NAU. Plummer injured his shoulder in that game, causing him to miss a week’s worth of throwing while also dropping to third on the depth chart, but after settling in late against Colorado he’s ready to make up for past performance.

And coach Jedd Fisch is eager to see what’s different about Plummer now that he’s the guy and, barring injury, will remain that way for the rest of 2021.

“It’s different when you know you’re the only quarterback,” Fisch said, who noted that he hasn’t seen Plummer get frustrated in practice this week if he misses a throw, as had been the case earlier. “So there’s not that lingering cloud of, if I make a mistake, what happens? I think he can play freely and say, hey, I’m gonna go out there and play the best I can and, and do everything I can to mature and grow.”

Plummer’s protection plan

Arizona’s offensive line has allowed 16 sacks on 275 dropbacks this season, but Plummer has been the least susceptible to being taken down behind the line of scrimmage. He’s been sacked just three times in 78 dropbacks, with only 12.5 percent of defensive pressures resulting in sacks when he’s on the field.

But those numbers are with a completely healthy offensive line, which Arizona is unlikely to have against Washington. Fisch said on Monday that center Josh McCauley and right guard Josh Donovan—who missed the Colorado game—are game-time decisions, meaning Josh Baker, Matthew Stefanski Jr. and even true freshman JT Hand figure to all be used more.

Baker and Stefanski are Arizona’s two lowest-rated pass-blocking linemen, per Pro Football Focus, while Hand has yet to appear in a game.

The run game is also in flux, as Fisch added Michael Wiley to the list of players whose status are uncertain along with Drake Anderson. That may mean a lot more touches for freshmen Jalen John and Stevie Rocker Jr. as well as redshirt sophomore Bam Smith, who last carried the ball in the 2019 finale at ASU.

Creating turnovers and making them count

With a minus-9 turnover margin, Arizona is third-worst in the country. The Wildcats have only forced five turnovers this season, going without a takeaway in four of six games.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown acknowledged the need for more takeaways on Tuesday, though he noted that fourth-down stops should count toward that number because it does give Arizona the ball. Same goes for safeties, of which the Wildcats have two this season.

“I think if those were part of the package that would help us a little bit,” Brown said. “We’re working at it every day. In the beginning of our individual session is, first thing we do is we work on tackling and in conjunction with that we’re working on getting the ball out.”

Taking the ball away and doing something with it are two different things. Counting safeties and turnovers on downs the UA has had 11 sudden change offensive possessions and they’ve produced just 20 points. Both TDs came off the safeties, against BYU and Oregon.

Washington has given the ball away 18 times (12 turnovers, six turnover on downs) so there could be opportunities for the Wildcats to capitalize on.

Washington’s own woes

Much like Colorado a week before, Washington enters its matchup with Arizona searching for answers on offense. The Huskies gained a season-low 267 yards in last week’s 24-17 home loss to UCLA, their 666 rushing yards are fewest in the Pac-12 and only Arizona (3.27) has a lower yards per carry average than them (3.43).

Quarterback Dylan Morris has thrown eight interceptions, tied for fourth-most in the country, and his 6.9 yards per attempt are better only than the QBs of Arizona and Colorado. Yet Washington coach Jimmy Lake said this week he’s “nowhere near a change in quarterback.”

The Huskies have only rushed for 100-plus yards against one Pac-12 opponent and on pace for their worst scoring rate since 2010.

Then again, Colorado was woefully bad on offense and beat Arizona 34-0, posting a season high in passing yards.

Arizona has held four of its six opponents under 400 yards and it ranks 10th nationally against the pass, yet it’s been outscored by 108 points by virtue of an FBS-worst 14 points per game on offense.

The dreaded red zone

The Wildcats, fresh off their first shutout loss in nine years, have failed to top 19 points in nine consecutive games. That’s their longest stretch since doing so in 13 straight games in 1931-32 and the longest run by an FBS team since Rutgers went the last 11 games of 2018 without getting to 20.

There are a lot of problems with the UA offense, but none stands out more than its inability to produce in the red zone. It has just five TDs in 20 trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line this season, kicking eight field goals and coming up empty on seven occasions including the abysmal 1st-and-goal-from-the-1 possession against Colorado.

During the 18-game skid the Wildcats have only scored on 72 percent of red zone trips, producing 19 TDs and 17 field goals in 50 visits. Opponents, on the other hand, are 74 for 82 with 53 TDs including a 17-of-18 success rate this season with 12 TDs.

Washington is 16 for 16 in the red zone this season, with 11 TDs, and it has held opponents without points on six of 23 trips inside the 20.