The Washington State Cougars make a trip to the desert for a game that most fans chalked up as a routine win before the season started. But that was before the Arizona Wildcats surged under their new, dynamic quarterback. What’s his name again?
Anyway, this game no longer looks like it will be easy — the Wildcats are now 5-2 and 3-1 in the Pac-12, having won three consecutive games. To get a read on Arizona, we hooked up with Ryan Kelapire of Arizona Desert Swarm for a Q&A.
CougCenter: How has RichRod turned this ship around? Is it as simple as "Khalil Tate"?
Arizona Desert Swarm: It's really that simple. Arizona's defense has actually regressed since the start of the season, but it hasn't mattered since a Tate-led offense has been nearly unstoppable. Before he took over as quarterback, Arizona's defense was keeping it in the game, but Brandon Dawkins just couldn't produce enough offense to win some tight games. Now it's been Tate overcoming poor defensive performances.
Everyone knows about Tate's explosive athleticism. What are his weaknesses that opponents likely will try and prey on?
As homer-ish as this may sound, he really hasn't shown any. But I think the thing Arizona's coaches worry about is Tate's tendency to play "backyard ball" in which he breaks away from the designed playcall or read to improvise. He's done that a few times since taking over as the starting quarterback but .... it's worked.
Also, we haven't really seen Tate under pressure in the pocket. Arizona's offensive line has only surrendered five sacks this year and I can't recall a single time when Tate was hit on a dropback. As any football person knows, quarterbacks are totally different players when put under pressure. And we really haven't seen that version of Tate yet.
Who else on the offense should fans be concerned about?
At receiver, there's Shun Brown, a diminutive target with big-play potential. He's caught a few deep passes from Tate since Tate took over as QB. Brown is also dangerous as a punt returner, returning two punts for scores this season.
At running back, Arizona just has a lot of quality depth. J.J. Taylor is a small scatback with ridiculous elusiveness in the open field. Nick Wilson, the starter, is UA's best all-around running back, boasting a good combination of size, speed, and vision. Zach Green is a straight up power back. Wilson suffered an ankle injury and could be out this week, though. Still, it hasn't really mattered who's been running the ball for Arizona lately.
Arizona's defense still is ... not great. Do you expect Saturday to be any different than Luke Falk's last two starts against the Wildcats, in which WSU has averaged 57 points?
Yeah. Washington State will put up a lot of points, but not as many as it has in the last two matchups. The best offense Arizona has faced so far is UCLA, and Arizona did a decent job of slowing them down. It sounds like WSU's offensive line isn't as strong this season, so I think the Wildcats will do a better job of getting pressure on Falk this time. But if Falk does get time, there will be open receivers all game. Arizona has had trouble covering the last few weeks, especially on short, quick throws, which I know are a staple of a Mike Leach offense.
If Arizona walks out of the stadium bowl eligible with its sixth win, it will probably happen like this:
Khalil Tate continues his ridiculousness, Arizona's defense forces multiple turnovers, and the Wildcats don’t miss field goals. Arizona's defense has been pretty awful the last three weeks after a strong start to the season, but its saving grace has been its ability to create turnovers. Arizona picked off Josh Rosen three times and Cal's Ross Bowers twice. And two of those five interceptions were made in the end zone. Another was a pick-six.
While I don't foresee Arizona creating seven turnovers as Cal did vs. WSU, if it can create two, maybe three, I think Arizona can win. And not missing short field goals would help, too. Arizona lost its long snapper to a torn ACL early in the season, so extra points and field goals are far from sure-things anymore.
And here are my answers to his questions ...
Arizona Desert Swarm: Has WSU been better than expected?
CougCenter: To some degree, yes. The Cougs began the season ranked No. 24, and I think most of us figured they’d probably be a fringy top 25 team this year. So, to see them ascend into the top 10 was definitely a little bit unexpected, even if we all kind of hoped that might happen given the fact that we started the year with five consecutive home games. Now, we’re heading into the final third of the season ranked No. 15 with just one loss — that’s probably at the top end of even the most optimistic projections.
The biggest reason for it is the improvement of the defense, which is probably one of the 15 or so best units in the country. It’s incredible to say that, as WSU always will be associated with offense as long as Mike Leach is coach, but this unit absolutely is legit. We said for a long time that if the Cougs could just get an average defense they’d really be on to something, given that the offense is probably always going to be good; well, now they have a borderline elite defense and you’re seeing the results.
What makes WSU's defense so effective?
One word: Speed. To be honest, some of you of a certain age might be reminded a little bit of the Desert Swarm defenses of the 90s when you see this unit. They attack everywhere and they are ferociously relentless to the ball carrier. They’re not real big up front — there’s just one 300-pounder on the roster, “nose tackle” Daniel Ekuale, who is barely 300 pounds — but they are awfully difficult to block because of their quickness.
The leader in that regard is defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa, who probably is the front runner for Pac-12 defensive player of the year. Despite being only 6-2 and 250 pounds, he lines up on the interior and has racked up 13 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, both best in the Pac-12. He generally requires two blockers (if they can get their hands on him before he’s in the backfield) which allows his fellow linemen one-on-one matchups they often win. In the run game, this allows, the linebackers and safeties to fill the gaps with quickness to stop most runners before they can even get going; in the pass game, they’re constantly able to put pressure on the quarterback, often without exotic blitz packages. (Keep an eye out for rush linebacker Frankie Luvu in this regard.)
Oh, and they are very good tacklers. For obvious reasons, this all makes the matchup this weekend incredibly intriguing.
It seems like Luke Falk and the offense have regressed a bit. Why is that?
The one that people like to point to most often is the loss of Falk’s favorite targets — Gabe Marks and River Cracraft — to graduation. But I think that lets some other people off the hook a little. One is Falk himself; it seems like there’s a little bit of a book on Falk, and at times he seems to end up confused by what he sees in front of him after the snap, causing him to hold the ball longer than he should, or check it down for a safe throw when maybe there’s a better option downfield. The other is the offensive line, which replaced its center and right guard; the two guys who stepped in this year haven’t played as well as their predecessors.
That said, the unit is still very good, and Leach’s offense has a tendency to catch fire at some point during the season. The offensive line is coming off its strongest performance, and Falk always has the ability to be brilliant. There’s still a lot of hope that the best is yet to come from these guys as we hit the home stretch.
What happened in that Cal game? Did Cal provide a blueprint to beat WSU?
The simple answer is that WSU played like crap. Sometimes college kids do that! So, no, I don’t think there’s a particular blueprint for stopping the Air Raid. Falk threw the ball to the other team five times; he’s only done that twice in the other seven games combined. (A few of them were just bad luck tips that ended up in someone’s hands instead of on the ground.) He also had a sack/fumble that resulted in a defensive TD. He just played crappy — easily his worst game since his freshman year. Sometimes that happens. They came back to put up four TDs in a driving rain storm last week, so I’m not particularly concerned, beyond the “book” I referenced previously.
What are your thoughts on Khalil Tate and the Arizona Wildcats?
He’s obviously very good! But I also think some of what he’s been able to do is because he’s played Colorado, UCLA and Cal, none of which field what would be considered a good defense. WSU is something else entirely, and it’s going to be fascinating to see if the Cougs can bottle him up in a way nobody else has. I know it’s a different year and all that, but WSU didn’t have too much trouble with him 12 months ago, and I tend to think he’s not going to find the wide open lanes he’s found while scrambling around the last few games.
What does WSU have to do to avoid the upset?
I think it really comes down to playing a sound, disciplined game — not turning the ball over on offense and containing Tate on defense. Given that Arizona hasn’t had a ton of luck stopping us for the last two years, and given that Arizona didn’t really do a great job stopping Colorado or Cal, I think the only thing that stops the Cougs is themselves. And then when it comes to Tate, I’m sure he’ll get his; the key will be not letting him bust those 70 yarders — make him earn every yard and see how much he likes getting hit repeatedly. I’d also ideally love to put Arizona in a position to have to pass to catch up, because I think it remains to be seen if Tate can throw well enough to do that.
In what areas do you think Arizona can exploit WSU?
Maybe the interior of the offensive line, if Arizona can use blitzes and stunts effectively? Other than that, I’m not sure there’s anything readily exploitable.
Unless Luke Falk has a repeat of Cal, I don’t really see any way Arizona’s defense can do much to slow down the Coug offense. That means Arizona’s going to have to score a bunch to keep up, which wouldn’t seem to be that much of a stretch, given the way Tate has played. However ... WSU’s defense is really good, and it was quite literally built to match up with spread offenses like Arizona’s. I think there’s a pretty decent chance they generally bottle up Tate’s legs and force him to make a significant number of throws. I’m betting he can’t do it — 41-24 Cougs.