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What to watch for when Arizona football hosts Washington State

arizona-wildcats-football-wsu-cougars-preview-jayden-delaura-roberts-wiley-bowl-eligibility-pac12 Arizona Athletics

Arizona’s remaining games this season are at home, where it holds a 2-3 record but most recently pushed the Pac-12’s highest-ranked team (USC) to the limit. Do well enough in those last two contests at Arizona Stadium and the Wildcats could get to do something they haven’t in five years: making a bowl.

The UA (4-6, 2-5 Pac-12) must win out to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2017, and the road to that goal starts with Saturday’s matchup with the Washington State Cougars (6-4, 3-4).

A small underdog, Arizona will also be attempting to win consecutive games for the first time since 2019 when it sat at 4-1 after victories over UCLA and Colorado … only to lose the next 20.

Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats and Cougars meet:

Pushing past the memories

The de Laura Revenge Game has been heavily discussed this week, both internally and externally, with the quarterback himself admitting on Tuesday he was “looking for an opportunity” to play WSU when he was in the NCAA transfer portal and his former head coach with the Cougars trolling on Twitter.

Fisch and his staff have pushed hard to get de Laura to treat this like any other game, and one way Fisch has gone about this is identifying an additional motivating factor.

“It’s an opportunity for him to put back to back games together, that was one of the things that we talked to him about,” Fisch said. “Washington and USC, back to back, was very productive, he had two very good games in a row. But there was a bye week in between those two, and now there’s an opportunity for him to go back to back, with no bye week, and have two of his best games in a row, regardless of opponent.”

It was this weekend a year ago that de Laura shredded Arizona to the tune of 259 yards and four TDs (on just 13 completions) and 31 rushing yards in a 44-18 win.

“I thought he was special throughout the whole game,” Fisch said. “That was not a great environment at that moment, with the weather that night. It was cold, it was blustery, it was foggy, there was some snow coming down, and he was on fire. You can tell that the weather didn’t affect him. And you could just sense, what I loved most about watching him play was, the confidence that he played with, and the confidence he plays with now, but at the time I didn’t know he was going to be our quarterback.”

De Laura doesn’t have the market cornered on having to compartmentalize facing WSU. That game last year also saw senior linebacker Jerry Roberts break his leg on the first play.

Yet when spring practice commenced in March, Roberts was nearly a full participant, and he’s ended up starting every game this season and leads the Wildcats with 64 tackles. That has made him a role model to everyone on the team, Fisch said.

“What he did, in regards to his road to recovery, helped our younger players understand what you have to do if you’re hurt,” Fisch said. “He stayed here during Christmas break and worked the whole Christmas break on his lower body to try to get his leg strong enough that he could participate in some of the winter workouts. During winter workouts he focused and concentrated on his ability to get stronger and get more confident on that leg so he could participate in spring ball.

“We had all these freshmen that were coming in and last year in January, I think it was like 14 maybe freshman, plus we also had our transfers coming in. When they see the guy that was your starting linebacker get hurt, and then fight to get back and then so far has been able to take almost every snap on defense that we’ve asked him to take, it really shows somebody determined and somebody dedicated to to wanting to be an Arizona Wildcat football player.”

The Wiley veteran

Arizona’s offense has improved leaps and bounds from a year ago, entering the weekend 21st nationally in yards per game and sixth in passing. Much of that has been attributed to the addition of transfers de Laura and Jacob Cowing, along with freshman phenom Tetairoa McMillan, as well as the emergence of Dorian Singer as a go-to target.

Then there’s running back Michael Wiley, a fourth-year junior who will be playing in his 37th game on Saturday and is coming off his most productive performance. He had 21 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown and also caught six passes for 46 yards with a score.

“That’s a pretty good workload,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said of Wiley, who was the first Arizona back to get 20 carries in 18 games and nearly ended the team’s 23-game streak without a 100-yard rusher.

Wiley became the 35th player in school history with 1,000 career rushing yards earlier this season, and his 87 career receptions are second-most among running backs (recent Ring of Honor inductee Vance Johnson had 104 from 1981-84). Yet somehow, Wiley never seems to get mentioned when listing Arizona’s main weapons.

“Michael has the skillset to be able to be a very versatile running back,” Fisch said. “His ability to pass catch, pass protect and run downfield … allows you to kind of be a triple threat in a lot of ways. He gives you the chance to be able to do whatever you want with him in the game.”

The rebuilt offensive line

With Jordan Morgan out for the rest of the season, redshirt junior Sam Langi is set to start at left tackle. Morgan had started the previous 21 games there, and in more than 1,600 career snaps has only allowed eight sacks (one in 2022).

Langi, who started at left guard once this season, held his own for the most part after replacing Morgan against UCLA. He’s logged 357 offensive snaps this fall, most of any player that hasn’t started at least six games, playing every line position except center.

“When you can do that there’s certainly a confidence rather than throwing somebody in there that hasn’t had that type of experience,” Fisch said. “Sam’s an older player, he’s not a younger player, so when it comes to going in to replace an older player, he has confidence and he went against the top 10 team last week. So I have confidence in Sam 100 percent, and I also know that our whole offensive line will step up to provide support.”

WSU is the top scoring defense in the Pac-12 (19.8 points allowed per game) and also leads the league with 68 tackles for loss.

Langi’s backup on the depth chart is senior Josh Donovan, who had been the starting left guard before missing a game with a knee injury and getting supplanted by freshman Wendell Moe.

Ambidextrous Cougs

WSU runs the Air Raid, but unlike the version that Mike Leach used in Pullman and has brought to Mississippi State, the Cougars actually do run the ball a fair amount. That’s been even more evident the past two games when Wazzu has carried it 73 times for 443 yards and six TDs.

In the previous eight games, the Cougs averaged 24.1 carries for 83.1 yards with six scores.

The emergence of junior Nakia Watson (282 yards and four TDs the last two games) has been a big part of the increased running, but WSU is also taking advantage of what defenses are giving them.

“What they’ve been able to do is they’ve been able to make you spread out defensively,” Fisch said. “They’ve had a very good box count to be able to run the ball and run the ball against zone coverages. Teams have been removing safeties ... which has now allowed them to be able to get positive yards downhill.”

Fisch said the key to dealing with that is giving different looks on defense, not appearing to be focused solely on just the run or the pass.

“A lot of times you want to say all right, we’ll take away their best thing, make them play left-handed, so to speak, is what Coach Belichick would always say,” Fisch said. “You can’t just say we’re going to force them to run it, because they’ve shown that they can do that successfully.”

Not looking ahead

The final game of the season is always a big one for Arizona, for obvious reasons, but in recent years the game before the Territorial Cup has seemed like an afterthought. And the results have showed.

The Wildcats haven’t won their pre-ASU matchup since 2015, when they beat Utah in overtime. Since then it’s been six consecutive losses, all by double digits, with the closest one the 24-13 home loss to Colorado in 2020 in which the UA led 13-0.

This is only the fourth time in the past 10 years Arizona is playing at home this week, so that should help. Same with the ability to remain in the hunt for a bowl bid.

“I’ve never been to a bowl game myself,” senior safety Christian Young said Tuesday. “We were supposed to go to one my freshman year but we missed a chance. I feel like it’d be a great opportunity just to keep the season alive.”