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Washington State football expert previews Arizona game, makes a score prediction

arizona-wildcats-football-preview-wsu-cougars-pac12-jayden-delaura-cameron-ward-2023 Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There’s no time to dwell on what might have been at USC, because another challenging road test is up for Arizona this weekend at Washington State.

The Cougars (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) are ranked 19th in the latest AP poll, dropping a few spots after falling 25-17 at UCLA, but they have taken three in a row from Arizona (3-3, 1-2) including last year’s 31-20 win in Tucson.

To better understand WSU, we reached out to Michael Preston of SB Nation sister site Coug Center. Here are his valiant answers to our cowardly questions.

AZ Desert Swarm: Washington State is coming off its first loss of the season, at UCLA, after averaging nearly 46 points per game during a 4-0 start. What were the biggest contributing factors to the setback, and which of those could continue to be problems moving forward?

Michael Preston: “The term ‘whipped’ probably does a disservice to what the UCLA front did to Washington State’s offensive line on Saturday. We knew the offensive line would be an issue going forward and although they’ve faced some decent to good defenses, they hadn’t seen anything like UCLA’s line to this and boy, did it show. (Cameron) Ward was under constant bombardment and it left Wazzu looking downright lost on offense for most of the second half. Coupled with the really hot temperatures and the massive differential in offensive plays run—UCLA doubled WSU—the Coug defense just ran out of gas in the second half as well.

“Ben Arbuckle has pretty effectively schemed around a porous offensive line this year and he’ll need to continue to do it to give WSU a chance to finish in the top-25.”

Quarterback Cameron Ward threw his first two interceptions of the year last weekend, but otherwise has looked pretty darn good this fall. Where has he improved from his first year with the Cougars, and what parts of his game could Arizona’s defense exploit?

“Keeping Ward in the pocket and trying to speed up his decision making will be key for Arizona to be successful. If you give Ward too much time to find an open receiver, this offense will provide one to him. Although it’s not strictly Mike Leach’s Air Raid, it’s similar enough that a pass rush is required to be effective against it because someone will get open eventually.

“Overall though, what it seems like Cam has improved on most is his decision making. He’s much better about tucking and running when needed (an underrated skill of his) and getting rid of the football when no one’s available and living to fight another down. There’s a massive difference between 2nd and 10 and 2nd and 17!”

Running the ball never seems to be a big emphasis at WSU, and this year is no different. How do the Cougars avoid becoming one-dimensional and allowing the UA defense to only worry about the passing game?

“Truthfully, it hasn’t mattered too much for the Cougs this year. Running backs Nakia Watson and Jaylen Jenkins are able to pick up some yards when it’s truly needed but have looked very easy to stop at times, again due to the mediocre play from the offensive line. One new wrinkle to the offense this year has been more designed runs for Ward, which was not a feature under Eric Morris. He serves as quite a battering ram in short yardage situations when the Cougs find themselves in ‘consider the run’ territory.”

Who are the defensive players that Arizona will need to be most concerned with?

“Ron Stone and Brennan Jackson are a pair of all-conference edge rushers who can wreak havoc on a pocket if they aren’t doubled from time to time but the interior linemen are no slouch either. In the backfield, the star of the show is safety Jaden Hicks, who will likely be departing for the NFL Draft after his redshirt sophomore season. He’s extremely fast, has great instincts, and hits like a train coming down the tracks. Overall, the Wazzu secondary has improved nicely his year!

“The linebackers still leave a lot to be desired. WSU lost all their starters to graduation or transfer and the inexperience shows. It hasn’t burned them too badly yet but I’d love to see more improvement from that group.”

Jayden de Laura had arguably his worst game in 2022 when facing his former team, and he could make his return to action on his first trip back to Pullman since transferring. What kind of reception do you expect WSU fans to give him, whether he plays or not?

“If he’s not playing, I wouldn’t expect much at all. If he is playing (and I have no idea why Jedd Fisch would do that with how well Noah Fifita has played), the term ‘no love lost’ comes to mind. The circumstances surrounding his departure, including not being with the team in the run up to the 2021 Sun Bowl and not playing in the second half of the game, and saying ‘it’s personal’ in the lead up to last year’s tilt haven’t exactly left a great taste in most Coug fans’ mouths.

“Assuming he trots out on to the field this Saturday, expect the boos to be loud and the cheers even louder if he makes any mistakes.”

Prediction time. Can Arizona end its gauntlet of three straight ranked opponents with its first win at WSU since 2014 or will the Cougars take a fourth straight meeting? Give us a score pick.

“Assuming Noah Fifita is the starter, I would wager this will be a close game. Washington State opened as a 9-point favorite and I’m not entirely sure why given how close every Arizona loss has been this year. I think the biggest question will be whether the Wildcats can slow down another really good offense for the third week in a row or if their second straight road game after an emotionally draining loss will hamper them a bit. WSU got smacked around a bit but got home at a decent hour. Arizona kept it close, damn near won but didn’t get home until oh-dark-thirty.

“With Fifita under center, I’ll say 34-28 Washington State. If JdL starts, I’m assuming the leash will be short but still something more like 34-21.”