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What to watch for when Arizona football visits No. 19 Washington State

arizona-wildcats-wsu-cougars-college-football-pac12-preview-delaura-fifita-edge-rushers-2023 Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Halfway through the 2023 season, Arizona has the same exact record as a year ago: 3-3 overall and 1-2 in Pac-12 play. But unlike last fall, when those first two conference losses were by a combined 45 points, the Wildcats have battled consecutive top-10 foes to within one score and went to triple overtime on the road last weekend at USC.

The UA has a bye after this next game, Saturday afternoon at No. 19 Washington State (4-1, 1-1), which means the conditions are ripe for a potential letdown performance after those recent near misses. It certainly had such a performance last year against WSU, losing 31-20 at home on the heels of an upset win at a top-10 UCLA squad.

What will it take for the Wildcats to put up another solid effort against a ranked foe, and maybe break through this time around? Here’s what to watch for from Pullman:

Playing the percentages

At the beginning of the week, coach Jedd Fisch said Jayden de Laura would return to his starting quarterback spot if he was “100 percent healthy.” If not, redshirt freshman Noah Fifita would make a third consecutive start.

On Thursday, Fisch stuck to that statement, but added that de Laura is expected to suit up for his return to the field where he started several games for the Cougars in 2020-21 even if he’s not at full strength.

“Even if he’s at 90 percent he’ll dress and be the backup,” Fisch said of de Laura, who suffered an ankle injury Sept. 23 at Stanford. “If he’s at 100 percent he’ll just start. He will be in full pads ready to go. If not starting, hopefully he’s healthy enough to play in an emergency situation.”

Fifita has been solid in relief of de Laura, leading Arizona on a game-winning drive at Stanford and then throwing for a combined eight touchdowns against Washington and USC. He had five TD passes in the triple-OT loss in Los Angeles, garnering him Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors.

If de Laura does return to action, it will be against the team for whom he 3,600+ yards in his first two college seasons. Ahead of his first clash with Washington State last November de Laura said the game was “personal” and then he went out and had a dud of a performance, throwing four interceptions.

“My message to Jayden is always the same, that when you play with poise, and when you play with confidence, you’re one of the best quarterbacks in the country,” Fisch said. “When he played against Washington, when he played against USC, he never let the emotions get in the way the game and played great football. Both games were fantastic games for him. If he plays like that, I know that we can compete with anybody in the country. But if the emotions get the best of them, or of any player, they’re never going to be at their best.”

Yet another standout passer to pursue

Against Washington, Arizona had to deal with the top quarterback in the country in terms of passing yards. Michael Penix Jr. threw for 363 yards but did not toss a TD, only the second time the past two seasons he hasn’t had one.

Then the Wildcats went toe-to-toe with USC’s Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, whom they held to season lows in passing yards (219) and TDs (one) and sacked four times. Williams made up for it with three TD runs and the game-winning 2-point conversion on the ground.

Now comes Cameron Ward, who has thrown for 1,586 yards and 14 TDs in five games. He’s also run for three scores and last November had a season-high 59 rushing yards in Tucson.

While he has shown the ability to get yards with his feet, Ward has also been sackable. He’s been taken down on 18.2 percent of dropbacks when facing pressure, and Arizona already has more sacks in six games this year (17) than all of 2022 (16).

A battle on the edges

Arizona is the second-best pass-blocking team in the country, according to Pro Football Focus, but the offensive line’s lowest-graded game was against Washington. The Huskies had the best edge rushers the Wildcats have faced this season, and they gave tackles Jordan Morgan and Jonah Savaiinaea a run for their money.

None of those UW edges are as highly graded as the the WSU duo of Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson, who have combined for 5.5 sacks but are also credited with eight QB hits and 23 hurries.

“This one’s gonna be a fun one to watch,” Fisch said. “It’s gonna be a great challenge, and what I know and we all know is that when you go against high-caliber players, high-quality players, it brings out the best in both and so I think it’d be quite a matchup on Saturday.”

Fisch noted that Arizona didn’t have either Morgan or Savaiinaea at those positions a year ago, the former having just suffered a knee injury the week before and the latter playing right guard.

Turnover time?

Ward threw his first two interceptions of the season last week in a 25-17 loss at UCLA, the last starting QB in the Pac-12 to get picked.

Arizona has yet to intercept a pass, one of four FBS programs with that dubious distinction, but it’s had some close calls. Sophomore cornerback Ephesians Prysock said he’s dropped two picks this season.

“We know it’s gonna come at some point,” Prysock said Tuesday. “We’ll just keep flying to the ball. I mean, me, I gotta get on the Juggs (machine), I can’t lie.”

WSU is minus-1 in turnover margin, with nine giveaways against eight takeaways. Arizona is minus-5, though the last four games it’s been even, while the Cougars are minus-3 in Pac-12 play.