Arizona has a winning record against four Pac-12 opponents, with its 27-18 mark against Washington State the best of the bunch. Yet it’s hard to remember many successes against the Cougars of late, as they’ve taken five of the last seven meetings including some truly brutal beatdowns.
Among the recent scores the UA has lost to WSU by: 69-7 (2016), 69-28 (2018) and 44-18 (2021).
All of those were in Pullman in November, a very unfun place and time to play. And they were against Cougars teams put together by prior regimes, leading to a lot of uncertainty about the current WSU team that sits at 6-4 overall and 3-4 in Pac-12 play.
To better understand the Cougs, we reached out to Michael Preston of SB Nation sister site Coug Center. Here are his carefully worded answers to our haphazard questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: This time a year ago, Jake Dickert was still an interim coach who was 1-2 in place of Nick Rolovich. Now he’s finishing up a solid first season as the full-time coach and the Cougars are already bowl bound. How has the team changed with him permanently in charge compared to when Arizona played WSU in Pullman a year ago?
Michael Preston: “The biggest difference is obviously that he has his desired coaching staff in charge. Following Rolovich’s departure, several other offensive coaches went with him so a patchwork had to be put in place. Dickert hired Eric Morris from Incarnate Word and brought in several other coaches with FBS experience, including Clay Maguire who had previously coached at WSU under (Mike) Leach. Otherwise, things are kinda the same! The team is disciplined, they look prepared and Dickert is very steady in all his public facing opportunities.
“I’d posit, too, that retaining Dickert probably helped steady the ship; he’s a face at least half the team was very used to and he, quite wisely, hired a lot of people with experience to help him. He’s a ‘full season’ in at this point and things have gone probably as well as we could’ve expected for a first time coach in his 30s.”
That last Arizona/WSU meeting saw Jayden de Laura throw four TD passes against the Wildcats, but despite his success the Cougs brought in a high-profile transfer in Cameron Ward. Why do you think they moved on from de Laura, and how has Ward done in comparison? Is he meeting (or exceeding) expectations?
“The biggest mystery about the de Laura saga is its ending. Without Rolovich, who de Laura clearly thought (and still does probably) a lot of, him departing wouldn’t have surprised me. Eric Morris was hired to be the OC before the bowl game and we all knew about Cam Ward. Was he offered before the game? Did de Laura know he was coming? Is that why he almost literally quit at halftime of the Sun Bowl? It’s a very weird chicken and egg situation! We’ll probably never know the full picture; the current coaches won’t talk, de Laura probably won’t either.
“As for Ward, I think it’s fair to say he’s falling short if only because we all put such high expectations on him. He’s WSU’s most high profile NIL deal. We leased him a truck! He’s been woefully inconsistent at times but his offensive line has been borderline abhorrent. He’s got all the tools we thought: rocket arm, elusive when scrambling, great reads on RPOs. We just haven’t seen it all put together just yet.”
WSU still runs the least of any Pac-12 team, but the last two weeks that’s changed with the performance of Nakia Watson. What can you attribute the improvement to, and do you expect this increased emphasis on the ground to continue?
“They’re into the part of their schedule where they’re facing the worst defenses they’ve seen all year. Watson is certainly their best back by a long margin but it’s also fair to say Stanford and Arizona State are bad defenses against the run that ... well, looked bad.
“Morris is a little different from Leach in that he’ll go ahead and call runs when he sees the reason to; i.e., if Arizona isn’t able to defend it come Saturday, expect heavy doses of Watson and Jaylen Jenkins. Whereas Mike Leach would stubbornly stick to airing it out, Morris has shown no such proclivity.”
The Cougars lead the conference with 68 tackles for loss, nearly double Arizona’s tally (38). Who are the key players in that unit, and are there any notable flaws with the WSU defense?
“Brennan Jackson is the one who stands about at EDGE. He’s having another excellent campaign after a breakout 2021. Quinn Roff and Andrew Edson will also rotate in to provide pressure. The defensive tackles also rotate a fair amount with Nusi Milani having an excellent showing against Arizona State. We’re still waiting for a breakout from Ron Stone, Jr., who was the team’s best rusher in 2021 but has yet to really have any impact. He started the year with an injury and I’m wondering if it’s still affecting him.”
Prediction time. Does WSU win for the fifth time in six meetings, or does Arizona ride the momentum of its upset over UCLA and catch the Cougars looking ahead to the Apple Cup? Give us a score pick.
“I think Dickert has shown he can keep this team focused on the task at hand. Their trap game earlier this year with Colorado State right before the Oregon game featured a thorough dispatching of the Rams.
“The key to this game for me really is Jayden de Laura. It’s strength on strength with one of the conference’s best offenses against one of the best defenses. So just how personal is personal for JDL? It kind of feels like he’s either going to throw for enough yards to make it to the moon or find a Cougar defender instead of his receiver more than half a dozen times.
“Wazzu’s defense has been dependable all year. Get pressure on JDL, make him make bad choices and your struggling offense won’t need to do too much. WSU 31, Arizona 21.