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What to watch for when Arizona football visits Washington

Freshman RB Jonah Coleman will make his first career start
Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona’s midseason stretch of tough opponents continues when it visits the Washington Huskies on Saturday afternoon, where the Wildcats haven’t won since 2007.

Washington (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) has dropped two in a row, both on the road, including last week’s 45-38 loss at ASU. The Huskies are 4-0 at home, while Arizona (3-3, 1-2) has lost 12 consecutive Pac-12 road games.

Arizona is a 14-point underdog, per DraftKings Sportsbook. Here’s what to watch for when UW and UA battle on Pac-12 Network:

New starters

Arizona has started 29 different players on offense or defense this season, compared to 41 all of 2021. At least two more will be making their first career start against Washington.

Freshman Jonah Coleman will start at running back in place of Michael Wiley, who missed the second half of the Oregon loss with an abdominal injury. Coach Jedd Fisch said Wiley could play “if called upon,” but it’s more likely he’ll sit this one out to heal and leave Coleman and DJ Williams to handle the workload.

Coleman has run for 217 yards and two touchdowns, posting a career-best 74 yards on nine carries including a 43-yard run that set up a field goal to end the first half.

On defense, DJ Warnell will start over Gunner Maldonado at the Star position, which is a nickel corner that also has run responsibilities. Warnell played 25 defensive snaps last week, mostly at the Star.

A transfer from UCLA, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Warnell had been tried out at linebacker and safety before the defensive staff decided his skill set best worked at Star.

“When it came down to it, we felt that he was more of a safety than a linebacker, and then we felt like he brings great coverage skills and tackling skills, so (Star was) the right position for him.”

Another change in the defensive lineup is likely, as freshman Jacob Manu was moved ahead of redshirt freshman Kolbe Cage at Will linebacker. Manu started against North Dakota State when Arizona used a 4-3 base defense instead of its normal 4-2-5 alignment.

Airing it out

If you’re a fan of passing, this game could be for you. Washington has the top passing offense in the Pac-12, at 357.3 yards per game, and Arizona (323.5) is second. Nationally they’re second and 10th, respectively.

Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr., a graduate transfer from Indiana, is the only player in the country to throw for at least 300 yards in six games. The only QB averaging more yards than him is Mississippi State’s Will Rogers, who threw for 313 yards and four TDs against Arizona last month.

But Washington’s pass game isn’t heavy on dinks and dunks, with more than 40 percent of his attempts going 10 or more yards downfield. His average depth of target is 9.8, tops among Pac-12 passers.

“They take shots down the field, they’re willing to ... be very aggressive with him,” Fisch said.

Like Arizona, UW has four players with at least 200 receiving yards. Sophomore Rome Odunze is the first Huskies receiver with three straight 100-yards games since 2006.

Where the Wildcats could have an advantage is in defending the pass. They’re third in the Pac-12 in passing yards allowed per game, at 201.8, with corner Christian Roland-Wallace and safety Jaxen Turner having Pro Football Focus coverage grades in the top eight in the conference.

Washington’s best-graded defensive back, safety Makell Esteen, is a freshman who has only played 46 snaps in four games, while none of its DBs with 100 or more coverage snaps have a rating in the top 40 in the league. The Huskies’ pass defense is a far cry from the one that led the nation in 2021, allowing 142.9 yards per game.

Gaining an edge on the edge

While Washington’s defensive numbers as a whole aren’t good, its pass rush is still a problem. The Huskies have 16 sacks, third-most in the conference, 7.5 by edges Bralen Trice and Jeremiah Martin, and along with Zion Tupuola-Fetui have combined for 61 quarterback pressures.

“It’ll be the second week in a row I feel as if we’re going against true NFL edge rushers,” Fisch said.

Arizona’s offensive line has allowed 68 pressures, 19 by right tackle Paiton Fears, and while the UA has only given up eight sacks the results when Jayden de Laura faces pressure have been mixed. Of his 266 dropbacks, 74 have resulted in pressure and he’s completing only 48.3 of his throws compared to 65.4 percent when kept clean.

“You have to not just hold serve when it comes to be able to handle those (edge) guys, but there has to be times that you win,” Fisch said. “You have to win some of those one-on-one matchups against those edge rushers, and all four of their defensive linemen. Their interior guys are pretty, pretty impressive as well.”

Penix is a 42.6 percent passer when facing pressure (compared to 69.3 percent when kept clean) but the only QB that has been pressured on fewer dropbacks in the Pac-12 is Oregon’s Bo Nix. Arizona rarely got close to him, or into the backfield on any play, resulting in the first game the Wildcats didn’t have a tackle for loss since 2011.

Expectations, not pressure

In the first three games this season, Arizona’s defense allowed scores on 14 of 35 possessions, forcing 3-and-outs seven times and recording six takeaways. In Pac-12 play it’s given up scores on 17 of 35 possessions, gotten six 3-and-outs and just one takeaway.

The run defense has gotten worse as the year has moved on, and even with some personnel changes there cannot be much of an expectation that it’s going to get better anytime soon. Which means Arizona more or less has to score every time it has the ball knowing that the D can’t be relied on to keep the opponent off the scoreboard.

That’s a lot of pressure on the side of the ball that has already been doing the lion’s share of the work.

“What I want our offense to think about, is do everything you can to score every time,” Fisch said. “That should be your mindset. You shouldn’t feel pressure that if you don’t, or if it doesn’t happen, that outcome is gonna be affected immediately. We want them to go out on the field with a confidence that the goal and our responsibility as an offensive team is to score, and then let’s just take not a look at the scoreboard every three minutes. Let’s look at the scoreboard at the end and see how many times we’re able to execute our number one goal, which is to drive the ball down and score.”

Arizona has turned it over nine times in its three losses, compared to twice in wins (both in the opener at San Diego State). The Wildcats have 23 scores in 30 red zone trips, their 17 TDs already five more than a year ago, but four of their seven empty possessions inside the 20 have come in losses, including the devastating fumble at the Oregon 7 on the first drive.

The UA’s red zone TD percentage, 56.7, is nearly double that of last season but still second-worst in the Pac-12, and in its losses that rate drops to 41.7 percent (5 of 12) compared to 66.7 (12 of 18) in wins.