PULLMAN, WA - Washington State has a big game looming against rival No. 17 Washington that could determine the Pac-12 North title and extend the No. 8 Cougars’ longshot bid for the College Football Playoff.
But the Apple Cup is next week. First, there’s the matter of Saturday’s game against Arizona.
“There is nothing more important than Arizona,” coach Mike Leach said. “Anyone who thinks other than that is wrong.”
Washington State (9-1, 6-1, No. 8 CFP) is seeking its first Pac-12 North title and needs the win against Arizona to help it get there. A 10th win would also tie the program record for victories in a season. The Cougars also seek to extend a 12-game home winning streak.
The Cougars have the best record in the Pac-12 and are a potent mix of offense and defense. They own the nation’s best passing attack (392 yards per game) and rank 20th in defense (324 yards per game). The Cougars average 470 yards of offense overall behind quarterback Gardner Minshew, while Arizona is yielding 417 yards per game.
“He (Minshew) has gotten more and more confident throughout the year as he’s played,” said Kevin Sumlin, Arizona’s first-year coach. “He’s a leader, a competitor, and you see that in games.”
Arizona (5-5, 4-3) has struggled this season, meanwhile, as has the Wildcats’ own star quarterback, Khalil Tate.
Tate, who shredded the Cougars in a Wildcats victory last season, suffered an ankle injury during the season opener and the injury has lingered.
Running back J.J. Taylor has helped carry the load for Arizona. The sophomore ranks fourth in the FBS in rushing with 1,221 yards and he leads all Power Five players in all-purpose yards. He has rushed for 558 yards and three touchdowns in his past three games.
Despite a fine high school career, Taylor had only two Pac-12 offers, from Arizona and Washington State.
“We felt like he was a good player, an explosive player,” Leach said. “He was a talented guy . making a ton of plays.”
Other things to know heading into Saturday’s matchup in Pullman, where temperatures are expected to be in the 20s:
PASSING RECORD: Minshew is threatening to break the Pac-12′s season passing record of 4,714 yards held by former Cal QB Jared Goff. Minshew has 3,852 passing yards with at least three games left and is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. The school has launched a Heisman Trophy campaign for the graduate transfer from East Carolina.
PEYTON’S PLACE: Sixth-year linebacker Peyton Pelluer, who is the fourth generation of his family to play at Washington State, has tied the team record by appearing in 51 games. On Saturday, he will likely break the record he shares with defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale and receiver Gabe Marks.
HELLO COACH: Saturday marks the first time Sumlin and Leach will coach against each other in the Pac-12, but the two have a long history dating to their time in the Big 12. The coaches have “shared ideas, we’ve visited with each other and we’ve just known each other for a long time,” Sumlin said.
POSSESSIVE: Washington State leads the Pac-12 in time of possession, averaging 32 minutes, 54 seconds per game. Leach shrugs off that stat. “The biggest thing is we had more plays,” he said. “You want to keep the ball away from them.” Washington State is tied for second in the country with 20 scoring drives of 10 or more plays.