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Pre-Snap Read: WSU vs. Arizona Wildcats

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The Cougs trip to Tuscon with four wins stashed in their carry-on, just like two years ago. Can they pull off another upset? We dive into what to look for in the match-up, and get awesome insights on the Wildcats from Anthony Gimino.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Wazzu heads to Tucson this Saturday to face a 5-2 Arizona team that has had a pretty up and down season to this point. The ups: cruising through the non-conference -- hanging 77 on Northern Arizona -- and waxing OSU the week before the Cougs did. The downs: suffering some bad injury luck, most notably to stud linebacker Scooby Wright, and getting their doors blown off against UCLA (56-30) and Stanford (55-17).

Despite those two drubbings, the Wildcats are the ninth-highest scoring offense in the nation at 41.2 points per game, and in the top 20 for basically every offensive category related to the ground game.

  • 37.2 pct of plays are a TD or first down (rank: 18th)
  • 46.7 pct 3rd down conversion rate (16th)
  • 20.8 pct of their plays are explosive (10th)
  • 13.5 rushing first downs per game (9th)
  • 3.1 rushing TDs per game (9th)
  • 297.4 rushing yards per game (6th)
  • 6.55 yards per rush attempt (4th)
  • 542.4 total yards per game (8th)

The primary concern with the Wildcats are explosive running plays, which was highlighted excellently by Jacob Thorpe earlier this week. Arizona spreads you out to run the ball, as a philosophy, and will run on 56 percent of standard downs, averaging around 45 rushing attempts per game. But they aren't restricted to the ground and will throw on roughly 75 pct of passing downs which is pretty high, averaging 35 attempts per game.

Many of those passes will be off play action, and have a run/pass option associated with them. The term du jour is "POP pass", and Ian Boyd covered it much more extensively last year. You won't find any specific Arizona diagrams in Boyd's piece, but what they do is very, very similar.

One of their foundations works off a counter run play.

Arizona_Power

This example is from Jared Baker's 79 yard touchdown run in the first quarter against Colorado last week. The Buffs were playing in a similar defensive set that WSU has as its base nickel. In this formation, the defense keeps six in the box with a man advantage over the receivers on both sides. For Arizona, this means six-on-six in the box and the running back mano-a-mano with a safety if everyone gets their blocks right.

The center and playside tackle downblock. The backside guard pulls to kick the rush end, and makes sure to not get upfield, he engages behind the line of scrimmage.

The playside guard meets the backer trying to fill A gap and drives him out. This block can go wherever the backer wants, this time the CU backer got man-handled into a safety. The other CU backer filled B gap and got stonewalled by the running back. Safety gets lost in the clutter of his own linebackers and Baker is off to the races.

Baker TD

They will run this play a lot, out of a two-back and single-back set, to either the strong or weak side, and will play action off of it frequently. After the run has been successful a few times, they'll hit an outside receiver on a post and catch a safety creeping. They also hitch and screen to the outside off these play fakes.

Needless to say, stopping it involves excellent run support from the safety position. This game is enormous for Taylor Taliulu and Shalom Luani.

The linebackers need to be able to scrape and fill gaps, and the corners need to be OK with man coverage when the safety bails on coverage to fill. As always, really disruptive play at nose tackle or defensive tackle can make these reads insanely hard for a quarterback ... which wouldn't be a bad thing if they're up against the less experienced quarterback -- which, they could be, if RichRod decides to move away from Anu Solomon in this one, as he did midway through the previous game.

What has me concerned with Arizona

Firepower. The Wildcats can score. They've only scored under 38 twice, in both of their losses, so WSU's offense doesn't have a ton of wiggle room.

Explosive runs. Which Thorpe covered. And don't think it's enough to force Arizona into long down & distances either; the Wildcat offense improves in S&P+ from 60th nationally on standard downs to 12th on passing downs, and are 15th on third down.

Jerrard Randall. The senior quarterback has only seen limited action behind the sophomore Solomon, but he is proving to be an extremely dangerous athlete. Randall has 534 yards on 48 attempts for an 11.13 yard average ... and that's not inflated by huge runs either. His rush attempts against the Buffs went for 15, 18, 12, 9, 4, 7, 3 and 1, with the last couple of those at the goal line including a TD.

To be frank, he's a nightmare to defend. Arizona will push tempo and read-option the end until the defense stops it with him in -- which could be anything from a few plays in spots to the full game. Who knows. He also has a bionic arm, which isn't all that accurate but does throw a ball that leaves a vapor trail.

Anthony Gimino, fantastic football writer who covers the Wildcats for Tuscon News Now and editor for Lindy's Football Annuals kindly lent us his time...

What are you most confident in about the Arizona Wildcats?

"They can run the ball, and they can definitely run the ball against Washington State. The Cats have rushed for at least 290 yards in five of their seven games. It doesn't much matter who has been at quarterback or running back, although it has been a concern that Anu Solomon has been reluctant to keep the ball in the zone-read.

"That was at least part of the reason why he was pulled late in the third quarter against Colorado last week, and then Jerrard Randall took over and immediately sparked the offense. What Arizona loses in passing accuracy with Randall it gains in his ability to run, run, run and make the defense account for him.

"Coach Rich Rodriguez is being coy about what he will do at quarterback. I'd expect Solomon to keep on starting, but the possibility of Randall entering the game at some point is greater this Saturday than it was last week. Two different skill sets, for sure, and that is something for WSU to worry about.

"At running back, Nick Wilson sat out last week because of a foot problem, so Jared Baker stepped in and popped out two long touchdown runs, 207 rushing yards, and the go-ahead score on a reception. He has a burst and is one of the fastest guys on the team. Wilson, with amazing vision, is superior in making guys miss and maximizing each run. If it comes to it, Arizona is just fine, too, with true freshman running back Orlando Bradford."

What has me confident about the Cougs

UA Pass Coverage. Wazzu again lines up against a secondary that hasn't logged a lot of hours on the field. One Wildcat reporter even called the matchup with Leach's offense "nightmare fuel", attributable to one of their starting corners being only a sophomore and the other a converted junior wide receiver.

The Wildcat pass defense ranks 120th in the nation in S&P+ (reference: Rutgers No. 119, Wyoming No. 117) and are highly prone to giving up explosives, ranking 114th in that category. On the opposite end, WSU leads the conference with 98 pass plays over 10 yards and 35 going at least 20 yards. Where the Wazzu passing offense is most successful -- 11th nationally in Success Rate -- the Wildcats rank 83rd at stopping it.

Under (little) Pressure. Arizona ranks 122nd in Adjusted Sack Rate, and only 115th in Overall Havoc Rate, meaning they do really poorly at defending passes (PBU or INT), tackling for a loss (TFL or sack), and forcing fumbles. The defensive line havoc rate of 2.5 pct is half the national average and ranks 122nd. Oregon State is actually the most comparable defense WSU has faced in terms of creating havoc.

Defending the deep ball. WSU giving up the occasional big run has overshadowed how well coverage has been against explosive pass plays, where the secondary ranks 7th in the nation at defending them.

Get in their kitchen. Linebacker play has been solid for WSU this season, with Peyton Pelluer quietly leading the way in tackles, and averaging just over a TFL per game. Nine defensive players have more than one TFL on the season and three are averaging more than one a game.

One way to keep Arizona's ground game from really taking off is for the backers, and defensive line, to get in the backfield and raise hell at the mesh point. WSU ranks 4th nationally in linebacker havoc rate and 15th nationally in the adjusted sack rate on standard downs. They know how to bring it, and Arizona's offensive line has been struggling a bit.

Forced Fumbles. The Wildcats are averaging over one fumble per game and have lost six so far this season. Wazzu has had a forced fumble in every game since week one, and the Cougs have eight total on the season.

So, Mr. Gimino...

What scares you about Wazzu?

"Call me crazy ... the passing game! It's Washington State's strength against a huge Arizona question mark.

"Good news for the Wildcats is cornerback DaVonte' Neal looks healthy after missing two games because of a hamstring injury. Coaches don't usually let injured players talk to the media, but he talked after Wednesday's practice, so there's that.

"On the other side, sophomore Cam Denson can be a high-risk, high-reward cornerback. He's athletic and can make plays on the ball, but he's still growing into the position. Love the athleticism of Neal and Denson, but neither has played a lot of cornerback at this level.

"The next man up last week when Neal was out was true freshman Jace Whittaker. Colorado found him and repeatedly picked on him. Other options at cornerback are sophomore Jarvis McCall and true freshman Sammy Morrison, whose dad, Darryl Morrison, was a starting corner on UA's 1992 team that began the Desert Swarm era.

"Man, the Desert Swarm teams vs. the Palouse Posse. Those were the days. Something tells me we won't be seeing final scores of 9-6 or 10-7 in this matchup any time soon."

How I see the game playing out

This game is a real marquee match-up of college offenses. The Coug D doesn't have very solid numbers against the run...and Arizona knows how to pound the rock. The Wildcat D doesn't have very solid numbers against the pass...and Wazzu will let it rip around 55 times a game. How good is your good?

Saturday in Tucson has all the makings of a good ol' fashioned shootout. I don't see either defense being able to do much to stop the other's offense, and there could be quite a few more explosive plays -- on both sides -- than we're used to seeing this year.

The Wildcats played a soft, 5-man zone coverage against Colorado and surrendered 339 yards through the air. Three plays accounted for 43 percent of that passing yardage, all to deep middle. River Cracraft could have a breakout game working the seam if Arizona hasn't shored up their coverage. They were comfortable playing off Colorado, and WSU is significantly better at nickel & dime-ing a defense than the Buffs are at the moment.

I wouldn't anticipate the Wildcats being able to completely change scheme in a week, so I'd suspect we see the same soft zone with occasional blitzing. Oregon State showed what can happen if you decide to blitz and man-cover the WSU receivers and aren't very good at it.

Arizona and WSU will trade scoring drives and big plays all game, every turnover on downs will be significant.

Final score: WSU 48 - 45 Arizona

And, Mr. Gimino...

"Arizona isn't playing all that well, but the Wildcats have been good under Rodriguez about taking care of business. They have lost only once in three-and-a-half years as a favorite of more than three points -- that, of course, Coug fans, was the 2013 home loss to Washington State.

"Anyway, it's easy to see both offenses having their way. I see this one as a coin flip -- high scoring and close. Starting with last season, the Cats have been really good late in close games, including last week, so I'll take Arizona. First to 40 wins?"

***

Huge thanks to Anthony for stopping by to fill us in on the Wildcats, you can follow his Arizona football and basketball coverage here at TusconNewsNow.com and TodaysU.com.