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What to watch for when Arizona football hosts No. 7 Washington

arizona-wildcats-football-preview-washington-huskies-michael-penix-delaura-fifita-wiley-pac12-2023 Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona is off to its best start since 2019, when a 4-game win streak got the Wildcats to 4-1 ahead of a big showdown at home against Washington. They would lose that game, and the next 19, including another home defeat to the Huskies.

Only two UA players who participated in that 2019 game are still on the roster, and Washington has changed coaches twice since then. The current coach, Kalen DeBoer, has the Huskies (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) at No. 7 in the country, making them the highest-ranked opponent to come to Arizona Stadium since 2013.

“This is the type of game everyone in college football looks forward to,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said Thursday. “I know our team certainly is.”

It’s Family Weekend and the game is expected to be a sellout, the first in Tucson since last October against Oregon.

“I would expect our students to come out in full force, so I would imagine the stadium to be overloaded and overflowing,” Fisch said.

Here’s what to watch for when the UA and UW battle on Saturday night:

A quarterback change?

Fisch said both quarterback Jayden de Laura and running back Michael Wiley, among several players injured in last week’s win at Stanford, will work out Saturday morning to see if they’re able to play.

“The most important thing that you can do as a football player is protect yourself,” Fisch said. “So if you’re unable to protect yourself, then I would expect them not to play. If they’re able to protect themselves, then I would expect them to play.”

Wiley missed last year’s 49-39 loss at Washington due to injury, with Jonah Coleman making his first career start and rushing for 53 yards and a touchdown while DJ Williams added 32 yards. That duo, along with Speedy Luke, combined for 124 yards and Williams’ game-winning TD at Stanford after Wiley got hurt on the second offensive series.

De Laura, who has started all 16 games since transferring from Washington State, injured his right ankle at the end of the third period. Redshirt freshman Noah Fifita came on and led Arizona on the game-winning drive, as well as one to ice the game later in the fourth, going 4 for 47 for 47 yards and rushing twice for nine yards.

That relief performance was a testament to Fifita’s preparation, Fisch said.

“I think Noah is, and has been, the ultimate professional,” he said. “Meaning, every single day he shows up to work ready to be the next quarterback. He knows he’s one play away. He’s been told he’s been one play away for as long as he’s been here, his preparation has never changed. His film study has never changed. His note-taking has never changed. And now the only difference is it’s now time to go, if that opportunity presents himself. And if it does, Noah will be ready.”

An offensive juggernaut

Washington is averaging just under 50 points per game, scoring at least 41 in every contest, and is tops in FBS in total offense, passing and big plays of 20- and 30-plus yards. The Huskies’ 22 pass plays of 30 or more yards is eight more than any other team in the country and most by any school in the first four games of a season since at least 2010.

“I think there’s no question that they throw the ball beautifully,” Fisch said. “They have an outstanding passing attack. They have great wide receivers, they have an outstanding offensive line. Their quarterback is elite. That’s not to say that they don’t have good running backs and tight ends, but they have a great scheme. I think Coach (Kalen) DeBoer is one of the better, if not one of the best offensive coaches in all of the country.”

Arizona’s defense has held its first four opponents to 64 points, less than half the 136 it yielded in the first four games of 2023. None of the teams the Wildcats have faced are anything like UW on offense, though, but Fisch still believes his defense can hold its own.

“I think our defense has shown all indications that we can play at a very high level,” he said. “They played our offense everyday training camp, so I use that as a good model to see how they play. They go against T-Mac and they go against Jacob Cowing and they go against Montana and Malachi. I’m very confident in our defense, of the way they’re playing right now, but this is certainly the biggest challenge that all year.”

Fisch compared Washington’s offense to that of the Miami Dolphins, who scored 70 against the Denver Broncos last weekend. He also noted Miami had just 24 the previous week against the New England Patriots, so to just assume this will be a shootout is being short-sighted.

“You just don’t necessarily know how a game is going to go,” he said. “The way that will go will determine how we’ll have to play the game. We had three possessions on offense (in the second half) last weekend, we scored twice. If they have three possessions on offense, they can only score three times and they could score twice, too, so you have to look at all facets of it when you continue to try to figure out how to play a game.”

Playing from ahead

Fisch said Washington’s potent offense makes its easier to jump out to a lead and then give the defense a chance to build off it. The Huskies have trailed for less than eight minutes this season, all in the first half of the opener against Boise State, and are outscoring opponents 52-15 in the first quarter.

Arizona, on the other hand, has been outscored 17-7 in the first period and hasn’t scored in the first 15 minutes since its first offensive possession of the season.

“Where I think that coach DeBoer has done an amazing job, and if you look at the great teams that set up their programs a certain way, you play to get ahead,” Fisch said. “They play on offense to score points and then they have amazing edge rushers. And when you have great edge rushers they’ve now been able to pick the ball off seven times, because they’re playing from the lead. And that’s their mentality.”

Fisch said getting pressure on Washington QB Michael Penix Jr., who has only been sacked once, is tied into the coverage that Arizona’s defensive backs will play on the Huskies’ many receiving targets, and vice versa. The UA has 11 sacks in four games, only five fewer than all of 2022, but has yet to get an interception.

“For us, what we need to do is we need to get a lead, play from me a lead, and let (Taylor) Upshaw and Deuce Davis and Isaiah Ward put pressure on (the) quarterback, and then have Pryscok and Tacario and Stukes then be able to fall into a pick or a play,” Fisch said. “The longer the quarterback has to hold the ball because of coverage the better chance of pressure, the more pressure the better chance the ball has to (get intercepted).”