The No. 8 Washington State Cougars (9-1, 6-1) welcome the Arizona Wildcats (5-5, 4-3) up north to the Palouse for a 7:30 PM PST kick on ESPN. The Mothership will showcase quarterback Gardner Minshew II — who just became an official Heisman Hopeful with the media campaign launched by Wazzu this week — against the quarterback most everyone assumed would be the PAC-12’s Heisman candidate in the preseason, Khalil Tate.
You know they booked this game hoping for #PAC12AfterDark shenanigans.
We caught up with Scott Moran from azdesertswarm.com, SB Nation’s Arizona Wildcats blog to give us some perspective from their side. I also answered a few of his questions that’ll be tacked to the end of the article, following his responses.
CougCenter: Defensive Coordinator Marcel Yates hasn’t held the Wazzu Air Raid below 600 yards of total offense in two seasons at Arizona. Will this year be different for him? How?
Arizona’s defense has still struggled this year, and it’s looking more and more like Yates just won’t be the guy to field a strong defense in Tucson. Against Gardner Minshew, I’d say there’s little reason for hope on slowing down Wazzu. However, there are some silver linings. One is the performance Arizona put together when hosting Oregon. Against one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and arguably the country, Arizona was able to tackle well and force pressure for the first time in a very long time. Another reason for hope is the continued development of the young stars. The three best defenders for the Wildcats are all sophomores, and they’ve set the pace for the rest of the defense.
If I had to choose whether Arizona’s defense will step up against WSU, I am gonna confidently pick no. However, I don’t think we’ll be totally picked apart, so there’s at least a chance for lightning in a bottle this Saturday.
CougCenter: Who should WSU fans know on Arizona’s defense?
I mentioned three stud sophomores above, and they’re without question the three players Cougar fans need to know on Arizona’s defense. They’re linebackers Colin Schooler and Tony Fields, and cornerback Lorenzo Burns. Schooler has 101 tackles already this season, and he’s involved in almost every play the opposition runs. Whenever the offense sells out to stop Schooler, Fields has more than enough talent to capitalize on the mismatch, and he’ll definitely make some key stops.
Since we’re facing a Mike Leach team with Minshew at quarterback, it’s a good thing our secondary is probably our strongest defensive unit. Burns is the star corner in that unit, with 11 passes defensed, easily leading the team. It’s really no more than bad luck and a drop or two that he doesn’t have multiple interceptions. Burns will be matched up with one of Wazzu’s many great receivers, and he’ll need to play the lockdown D he’s been capable of for Arizona to have a chance.
CougCenter: Arizona looks like they righted the ship in the middle of the season with two strong offensive performances in a row; are they better now than they were in September?
Oh, this team is light years ahead of where they were in September. Going to the BYU and USC games in September, this team was BORING to watch. Tate was clearly more hobbled than he was letting on, the offense just couldn’t figure out Mazzone’s scheme (and some of his play-calling wasn’t great), and the defense was wasting it’s best performances on nights where the offense was just completely flat.
Now though, Tate is close to 100%, JJ Taylor has become the star I expected him to be, and the whole team seems to be clicking with the new staff. Sumlin and Mazzone burned an astonishing amount of their starting goodwill in September and early October, but they’re starting to build it back with the last two performances which were a blast to watch, and recruiting is doing a bit better. Washington State is a very hard match-up, but this team is clearly peaking at the right time.
CougCenter: Do you think Khalil Tate is comfortable with OC Noel Mazzone’s system? A lot of people had Tate pegged as a dark-horse Heisman candidate for the conference, so why do you think it took a while for them to get things figured out?
I really think everybody in both the football program and the fan base didn’t realize how much Sumlin and Mazzone’s system was going to be different from RichRod’s. I was relatively happy with the Sumlin hire, and while I would’ve preferred someone different than Mazzone at OC, I thought it could’ve been much worse considering our coaching search didn’t start until after the bowl game.
It became clear pretty fast that Sumlin and Mazzone weren’t budging an inch on their playbook. Considering the two of them had Kyler Murray at Texas A&M, I figured they’d have learned their lesson and at least met Tate in the middle on his skill set. It’s clear now though that they were playing the long game. Tate was a fine passer, but he got most of his air game done via play actions that resulted in wide open seam routes due to the explosive UA run game. Now, he can make the kind of throws a quarterback needs to make, while still being able to tuck it and run. I’m pleased with the results, although I’ll never truly forgive this staff for wasting this amount of talent on a transition year in a year where the Pac-12 South is so wide open (yes, even if we pull off a miracle and win the division anyway).
CougCenter: Last year Tate and J.J. Taylor both rushed for nearly 150 yards a piece. Should WSU fans expect more of that again this year against a Coug defense that’s allowing an average 125 yards per game?
I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the Wazzu defense has what it takes to slow down Arizona. Alex Grinch was probably the best defensive coordinator in the country not named Venables in Pullman, and now Tracy Claeys has picked up exactly where Grinch left off. However, with a healthy Tate who seems to be comfortable again, there’s no true way to stop him, just slow him down.
Taylor might be a different story. Gary Brightwell was actually starting to make a push for the starting job in October, before an injury ended his season. Now Taylor is expected to bear a lot fo the burden in the running game. Against a big, powerful Wazzu front, it’s hard to see a 5’6” running back doing much. He’ll have to rely on his speed and blocking on the edge, which thankfully have both been impressive of late. I’d expect Taylor to rush for ~4 yards per attempt, and Tate for a touch more, but overall the running game battle feels like it’s destined for a draw to me.
CougCenter: Aside from those two, who should Wazzu fans know on Arizona’s offense?
Shawn Poindexter isn’t our most explosive receiver, but he’s one of the very few Wildcats who’s not undersized thanks to Rodriguez’s recruiting. Poindexter stands at 6’5”, and that makes him a favorite of Tate when Mazzone calls for a deep ball. He’s got great hands and has drawn a lot of pass interference due to the mismatches he is able to create. I would be absolutely floored if Poindexter doesn’t lead the team in targets in such an important game.
If there are any former offensive linemen or just guys who like watching the trenches at Martin Stadium, be sure to watch left tackle Layth Freikh. This is a very young offensive line who I think almost all Arizona fans are very proud of, but Freikh is the Senior leader protecting Tate’s blind side. I can’t think of a time when Tate was hurried from his blind side, and Freikh has been huge in opening the left side of the field to the running game. Like I said, this whole O-Line is super promising, but Freikh is without a doubt the leader.
CougCenter: What are you most confident in about the Arizona Wildcats?
I have been on a roller coaster ride all year in terms of confidence in Arizona this season. I’ve been very wrong about most of my predictions this year, and at this point I might as well be throwing darts at a depth chart to pick who I’m most confident in. I’m gonna go ahead and take the cheap answer and say Khalil Tate. It might have taken seven games, but Tate is finally himself, and it is so important that this game comes after the bye. Tate is gonna be the healthiest he’s been in almost a calendar year, and he finally has the pocket presence to beat Wazzu through the air even if they’re playing well.
CougCenter: How do you see the game playing out?
I am absolutely pumped to watch this game, since it’s got the two teams I’ve enjoyed watching the most in the Pac-12 this year. Before the season, Arizona fans were so happy about our Pac-12 schedule, since we got USC at home and dodged Stanford and UW from the North. Little did we know, we had a November road game against the Pac-12’s best team anyway, which is quite funny to me.
I’ve been so proud of this team for rallying late and Sumlin is giving me real reasons to hope for more success than he had at A&M (which was already more than we’re used to). In Pullman against Minshew and co. though, this game just is too tough. I think Vegas made an excellent call as usual when pinning this game at around -9 WSU, I’m gonna say Washington State pulls away lat to win 48-38. I’m hoping I’m wrong, but I doubt it.
AZ Desert Swarm: This first post-Falk season was supposed to be a rebuild on the Palouse. How did Mike Leach turn this team into a Playoff contender?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think even the coaching staff knows exactly what they did. Coach Leach all but left in the off-season for Tennessee, which cascaded into a near entire turnover of the coaching staff. Notably, the running backs coach left for Oregon, joining up with another former Leach assistant in Joe Salave’a, the high-energy recruiter coaching outside linebackers left for UCLA, the strength coach left for the Chicago Bears and the hot-name defensive coordinator got a pay raise from The Ohio State University to be a glorified back-up to Greg Schiano.
For all intents and purposes, it looked very much like the height Coach Leach and the Cougs reached in 2016 and 2017 would be the high water mark for his tenure.
Add to that -- which really shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as those other things at all but has to be said somewhere -- presumed starting quarterback Tyler Hilinski tragically took his own life and was found by a couple of his friends and teammates.
I think what we’re seeing now is a team that became very close getting through all that and has a lot of trust in one another. And more surprisingly, they’ve found a way to make this whole run a lot of fun. The talent was there to be a good team -- nothing on paper suggested a great team -- but these guys have been playing at an incredibly high level more consistently than we’ve seen on the Palouse in a long time. Coach Leach should get a ton of credit for that and the senior leadership, and players themselves, should get even more.
The whole good to (potentially) great jump was probably ignited by a transfer quarterback no one had heard of. Which might be the most improbable piece of this whole thing.
AZ Desert Swarm: Gardner Minshew seems to be the perfect Leach quarterback. What makes him so special?
His energy. You can tell there’s a different feel to the offense with him taking snaps, that the receivers are playing with more juice. WSU’s offense is not the monotonous Papercut Machine it occasionally felt like when Luke Falk operated it. It takes a certain kind of bravado, moxy, swagger, [insert cliche here] to rock a mustache as a joke in camp to lighten things up and keep wearing it through a now Heisman Campaign worthy season. And as cliche as it is, you can tell certain guys have “it”, right? Khalil Tate is one of those guys. That’s what makes Gardner Minshew special.
And it hardly ever works out that a graduate transfer ends up exactly where he’s supposed to be, which makes this season all the more improbable. Minshew came to WSU for a last shot at playing ball before a coaching career and might be playing himself into the NFL draft and a trip to New York.
What makes him good is a set of pocket skills that align perfectly with the Air Raid offense. He’s not overly fast or a dangerous running threat, but his pocket mobility is off the charts good. Wazzu’s low sack rate is partially due to the offensive line, partially to the quick passing game, and partially to his ability to buy time in a throwing position with his eyes downfield, escaping when he needs to. He’s also got a very quick release and is highly accurate with moderate-to-good arm strength.
Biggest of all, he moves through the progression quickly but not in a hurry and makes great decisions. He’s been running some version of the Air Raid since grade school but I don’t suspect the coaching staff even figured he’d be operating Leach’s version at this level, this quickly.
AZ Desert Swarm: Tracy Claeys has picked up right where Alex Grinch left off. How important is that great defense to this team?
The offense is pretty good, ranking 15th in S&P+, but it’s not Get-In-A-Shootout-Every-Week-And-Win good. WSU wouldn’t be having near the success it’s having without a defense that can be relied on for timely stops, at the very least.
The Cougs aren’t very big up front on the defensive line but they’re as fast and swarm with an almost overwhelming intensity. Claeys deserves some Broyles’ Trophy consideration with what he’s been able to do for the Cougs. He came in and didn’t make the defense learn anything new, the way he figured it’d be easier for him to learn their language and schemes than for all of them to learn his. So, you’re seeing Claeys scheme calls for a defense that isn’t really his Big Ten Brand and that he only started learning last spring.
Most impressive are his in-game adjustments. They had a plan going into USC and got smoked on the first drive. He changed it up on the fly after that and was able to lock things down a lot better. Similarly with the Stanford game, holding the Cardinal to 10 points in the second half. As great as Alex Grinch was developing the defensive scheme, he had a little trouble in this area. The game in Tuscon last year was a good example of that. Grinch wanted to be more aggressive and schemed to fill-and-replace at the linebacker level with a strong safety. Khalil Tate annihilated that game plan almost instantly and they never adjusted with it.
AZ Desert Swarm: Who is a lesser known impact player on offense Wildcat fans should know about?
It’s a little harder to be lesser known on WSU’s offense, 10 players have over 20 receptions on the season. I’d go with No. 85 Calvin Jackson Jr., our X receiver behind Davontaveon Martin, split out to the left. The name might be familiar for any of your readers that watched Last Chance U on Independence Community College last season. He’s gotten a few receptions in most games this season and broke out a little against Colorado last week, catching 5 for 53 yards. He appears to have found his footing in the offense and could be more of a factor going forward.
The more obvious ones are No. 8 Jamire Calvin and No. 21 Max Borghi. Wazzu’s inside receivers are really fast and Calvin is taking the same position River Cracraft played as a possession receiver and turning it into a legitimate deep threat. Borghi should probably be a household name for PAC-12 fans by the end of the season. He’s a true freshman running back that’s averaging over five yards per carry with six TDs, and has over 30 receptions on the season with another four TDs through the air.
AZ Desert Swarm: What about on defense?
No. 27 Willie Taylor III at the Rush Defensive End. Taylor is a converted defensive back and can get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. Logan Tago, Nnamdi Oguayo, and Dominic Silvels are probably the more familiar-looking names along the defensive front and Taylor has been really impressive in his first season at the position alongside those guys.
No. 26 Hunter Dale is a stud at Nickel, too.
AZ Desert Swarm: What are some things visiting Arizona fans should do in Pullman?
Are some of you really coming to Pullman...in November? Luckily the weather isn’t supposed to be too bad for this one.
Black Cypress is a really good spot for dinner downtown. If you want to check out the college bars on the hill, go to The Coug and Valhalla. Both will probably boo you when you come through the door but it’s all in good spirits. If you walk from there toward Martin Stadium you’ll come across the Hollingberry Field House, which is a huge indoor tailgating area with food vendors, tables and chairs, alcohol, TVs, and is an easy five minute walk to the Martin Stadium gate you’d want to enter.
If you walk past the Field House and outdoor track and cross Stadium Way you’ll be in the prime RV lot tailgating area. Most Cougs are very welcoming and will probably give you whatever they got on the grill and in their cooler just for making the trip up to Pullman. Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe is also out that way, which is where you can find some Cougar Gold or my personal favorite Crimson Fire cheese.
AZ Desert Swarm: Lastly, what’s your score prediction for the game?
With a (near) 10-point spread and O/U at 62.5, Vegas sees the game ending somewhere near 36-26 in favor of the Cougs. S&P+ is slightly more favorable for WSU, predicting a 14.9-point margin. I would expect Tate is as healthy as he’s been all season and more comfortable with Mazzone’s system than in any previous game. That makes me lean a little more on higher scoring and a closer outcome.
WSU 44 - 38 Arizona