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What to watch for when Arizona football visits Washington State on Friday

arizona-wildcats-football-preview-wsu-cougars-passing-asu-weather-fisch-carroll-wiley-2021 James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats are on the road for the rest of the 2021 season, starting the trip with a Friday night visit to Pullman to take on the Washington State Cougars.

WSU (5-5, 4-3 Pac-12) hast lost two of its last three since making a midseason coaching change, firing Nick Rolovich for cause after his refusal to comply with a state mandate to be vaccinated against COVID-19. He and four assistants were let go, leaving defensive coordinator Jake Dickert in charge for the remainder of the season.

Arizona (1-9, 1-6) has not won in Pullman since 2014, and the last two visits were painful. The UA lost 69-28 in 2018 and 69-7 in 2016.

Here’s what to look for from this Friday night game, which has Wazzu favored by 15 points according to DraftKings Sportsbook:

Keeping the RBs involved

Arizona leads the Pac-12 in offensive plays run, averaging 72.5 per game, and it the run/pass split is almost exactly 50-50 when sacks and scrambles are included on the rushing side. That’s what coach Jedd Fisch would love to continue happening, since it will enable the Wildcats to control the clock against a potent WSU offense, though the numbers might suggest the UA should go heavy on the road.

The Cougars have allowed 200-plus rushing yards in three of the last five games, giving up 306 to Oregon in last week’s 38-24 loss, and they’re 10th in the Pac-12 in long run plays allowed.

Yet the UA’s production on the ground has been heavily subsidized by quarterback Will Plummer taking off when the pocket breaks down. In the past three games he has rushed for 149 yards and two TDs. Another 101 have come from wide receivers and linebackers, thanks to Anthony Pandy’s 30-yard run on a fake punt, leaving only 181 yards and two TDs from actual running backs.

“We need to get them more carries for sure move forward,” Fisch said.

Drake Anderson, Arizona’s leading rusher at 267 yards, has had only 10 carries the past three games. Michael Wiley, who leads the team with 79 carries, had more receptions (4) than runs (3) against Utah.

Don’t think that means the UA will go super-heavy on the ground to start just for the sake of running, however.

“The whole establish-the-run sentiment is is a little bit of a fallacy,” offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said. “We’d love to say that we ran the ball 15 times and we scored first two drives. It’s hard to do that, defenses are teeing off on stopping the run. It’s more important to have balance early, and then if you got a chance to finish a game with the run that’s ideal.”

The unleashed Singer

When Arizona does throw the ball against Wazzu, senior Stanley Berryhill III will often be the first option. He leads the team with 68 catches, good enough for 10th-best in a season in school history, and his 600 yards and more than twice as much as any other Wildcat.

By the end of the season, though, Dorian Singer may end up second in both categories if he keeps on the pace he’s been since cracking the lineup. He didn’t appear in Arizona’s first seven games then made his collegiate debut at USC when he had three catches for 65 yards.

Singer, a walk-on from Minnesota who finished high school in Peoria, Ariz., had five catches for 46 yards in the Homecoming win over Cal and led the UA with five receptions and 84 yards against Utah. He’s already fifth on the team in receiving yards.

Fisch said knowledge is what has enabled Singer to become a factor after arriving at the UA just before training camp.

“He had to understand where he was on the depth chart, he had to earn his way up every week,” Fisch said. “That’s why we do those basic periods three days a week where we have our young guys go against our young guys, and he kept getting better in those. He was a dominant performer, him and Ma’jon (Wright), but he was still eligible to be able to play this season. So Dorian became more and more dominant, more and more dominant. And then he got to the point that, how can we not play him? Then he had to start showing us that he knew what he had to do on every play. Not every play he gets right, but enough of them he does right that he’s worth playing.”

Wazzu’s pass attack

When it comes to offensive balance, Washington State hasn’t been known for that in quite some time. First with Mike Leach and then with Rolovich, the Cougars are traditionally one of the most pass-happy teams in the country.

That’s still the case this season, even with the midseason coaching change, as WSU is tied for 24th in pass attempts per game (35.7) but its 260.5 yards per game (40th) is its lowest in a full season since 2011. That was the year before Leach brought his Air Raid attack to Pullman.

But it will still seem like a lot since only one team (USC) has attempted more than 30 passes against Arizona in 2021.

“They are a team that’s going to throw the football all over the yard,” Fisch said. “They’re going to play with five wide receivers and four wide receivers at a time. Very rarely will they ever have two backs in the game or a tight end and a back. They’re going to challenge you both vertically and horizontally throughout the entire game on offense. They’re gonna go fast.”

Defensive coordinator Don Brown said the last time he faced a pass attack like this was when he was head coach at Massachusetts in 2008 when he played at Leach’s Texas Tech squad that featured quarterback Graham Harrell and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. The Minutemen lost, 56-14, giving up 359 yards and four TDs on 31-of-43 passing.

Arizona has played mostly man defense against the pass this year, but Brown said that can’t be the case against Wazzu.

“We’ll get everybody involved, but we do that anyway,” he said. “We don’t just play man coverage every snap. I feel like you need to be varied. You need to be able to play some zone. You need to be able to trap it. You need to be able to play some man. You need to double, have brackets, those kinds of things are the things that lead to a poor completion percentage. And at the end of the day, that’s one of the strong facets to help you get off the field on third down.”

Arizona is second in the Pac-12 in pass defense, allowing 193.6 yards per game, and the 141 completions it has given up are third-fewest in the country.

Weathering the elements

The forecast in Pullman calls for rain and a kickoff temperature of 38 degrees, which could make for a very miserable night for an Arizona team that has yet to play in cold weather this season. Fisch tried to downplay the conditions on Monday, saying “if it rains, it rains, right? What are we gonna do about that?”

Fisch said he expects Friday to be “just a pretty decent night” compared to some of the sub-freezing games he was a part of as an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens as well as the University of Minnesota.

As long as players stay loose and keep moving they’ll stay warm, Carroll said.

“They just gotta run around a lot and block and stay warm, which I think if we can fly around the field like we’ve like we planned to,” he said.

Some players may end up wearing sleeves under their jerseys, but not the running backs.

“I can’t wear long sleeves, because they don’t want us to wear long sleeves because it might help fumble,” Wiley said. “It affects your grip with the ball. It’s gonna be cold but it’s just something you’ve got to be mentally prepared for.”

Not looking ahead

Arizona ended its long losing streak a few weeks ago, and next week it wraps up the season against hated rival ASU. That makes Friday’s game, in the grand scheme of things, pretty meaningless.

Fisch said he has preached to his team to play 12 one-game seasons, keeping the focus on the current opponent and waiting until after that game to think about the next one. But this is ASU, and most of Arizona’s coaches have no experience with this rivalry—Chuck Cecil and Ricky Hunley being the notable exceptions—the players have a completely different perspective.

And before you think that looking ahead is a non-issue, consider: the Wildcats have not won the game before ASU since 2015. From 2016-20 they have been outscored 218-93 by their pre-Sun Devil opponent, the closest game being last year’s setback to Colorado in which they led 13-0 before getting outscored 24-0 … then lost 70-7 to ASU a week later.

“You can’t just look past Washington State like they’re not a good team,” Wiley said. “So we just got to stay focused for that.”