Arizona-Washington State: 5 things to watch/prediction

Arizona-Washington State: 5 things to watch/prediction
Anthony Gimino
Anthony Gimino

By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The Arizona Wildcats took a pause after their painful loss to USC, with their final bye week nicely dividing the first half of the season from the second.

The back stretch starts with a game at Washington State. For Arizona, the stakes are maintaining its No. 15 national ranking while picking up its sixth win of the season and stair-stepping its way to a key Pac-12 South game next week at UCLA. For the Cougars, it's a full-on must-win game. WSU is 2-5 and needs to win four of its final five to reach the minimum for bowl eligibility.

Here are five things to watch Saturday afternoon:

1. WSU quarterback Connor Halliday

His stats are ridiculous, which everyone has come to expect from a quarterback in Mike Leach's Air Raid offense. But that that doesn't mean Halliday is just a plug-and-play quarterback and that anyone would be putting up the same numbers.

"He seems like a really smart player," said Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright.

"He makes smart decisions. He makes good reads. He pays attention to what the coverage is. A lot of times, he'll slide step and say, 'Screw the play,' and just pick up a third open receiver. That's something he'll do a lot."

Halliday will have four or five receivers to choose from on every play in Leach's spread attack that loves to work the field horizontally with quick passes. Once a defense sees enough of those, the Cougs load up Halliday's cannon and go long to a deep group of receivers, led by Vince Mayle, WSU's best pro prospect.

Halliday has completed 292 of 438 passes for 3,344 yards, with 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Here's some context for what that all means: He leads the nation with 477.7 passing yards per game - 61 yards more than the second-most prolific quarterback.

"You just look at his physical abilities - his size and his arm strength - and beyond that, it's his ability to read a coverage and extend a play and be able to scan the whole field," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.

"The ability to see the field and get rid of the ball so quickly does translate to the next level, because that's what the NFL has become. It's become a shotgun, get rid of the ball quick, spread you from sideline to sideline kind of league."

2. Rain on the Palouse

The forecast, as of Friday morning, called for a 20 percent to 40 percent chance of rain and wind, especially later in the afternoon.

"I don't want it at all," Rodriguez said of any bad weather.

"I've had plenty of cold and rainy in the past. That's why I love Arizona so much - 10-day forecast, zero percent chance of rain."

In conventional football theory, wet conditions favor the better running team, which is Arizona.

"Sometimes, I used to think if it was a passing team, it was harder to pitch and catch," said Rodriguez, pondering what kind of team has an advantage in sloppy conditions. "But then at the same time as a wideout, you know where you're going and the defense doesn't, so you worry about guys slipping around.

"So, I think it probably about equals out."

In an effort to help tilt those odds, Arizona practiced this week with wet footballs in advance of the potential precipitation.

3. Arizona's running backs

The Wildcats' one-two combo of Terris Jones-Grigsby and Nick Wilson has rarely been healthy together after the first game, and that might be the case again this week.

Jones-Grigsby is listed as probable after suffering a concussion on that huge hit two weeks ago from USC's Leonard Williams, who dislodged the ball from TJG's arms inside the 10-yard line late in the first half.

Wilson, meanwhile, missed all of that game because of an ankle injury. Arizona lists him as questionable for Saturday's game, and "questionable" has almost always translated to "out" this season.

This could be the week that breaks the trend, as Wilson and Jones-Grigsby each appeared to do enough work in practice to be ready for the game. But, as always, this is wait-and-see. Third-stringer Jared Baker wasn't bad at all when he played in the second half against USC, but there's a reason why he's third on the depth.

With Jones-Grigsby and Wilson tag-teaming it, there's been virtually no production drop-off in the backfield.

Here are two sets of numbers:

--147 carries for 873 yards and nine touchdowns in six games.

--156 carries for 920 yards and 10 touchdowns in six games.

The first line is the combined total from Jones-Grigsby and Wilson. The second line is Ka'Deem Carey's total through his first six games of last season, when he was mostly a one-man show.

(Also key to the running game: Starting left guard Cayman Bundage is questionable because of a knee injury. Even if he plays just a little, that could be huge.)

4. Anu Solomon's running

Rodriguez is passing more than he ever has in his head coaching career, and part of the reason is that quarterback Anu Solomon isn't much taking off with the ball on zone-read plays.

"I wouldn't say he's dynamic by any means," co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said of Solomon as a runner, "but he's efficient."

The offense is working just fine but could be better if Solomon "presses" the defense more - attacks the line of scrimmage with at least the threat of the run to potentially get a defender out of position as Solomon considers a run-pass option.

Of course, passing won't be so bad of an option Saturday. The biggest mismatch will be Arizona's passing game against a young and beleaguered Washington State secondary that is 10th in the league in passing yards allowed (280.7) and starts a sophomore, a true freshman and two redshirt freshmen.

5. The kickers

Arizona hasn't made Casey Skowron available for interviews since he missed a potential winning kick, so we can't gauge his mindset. But, by all accounts, the team has rallied around the junior after his missed 36-yard field goal at the end of the USC game.

Wildcats great Tedy Bruschi even texted Wright after that game, partly as an encouragement to help keep the team together, because it will need Skowron at some point later this season. Perhaps even Saturday.

Washington State's Quentin Breshears can feel Skowron's pain ... and then some. Breshears missed a 19-yard field-goal attempt with 19 seconds left in a 60-59 loss to Cal earlier this month.

PREDICTION

Arizona is favored by about a field goal, which sounds about right.

The Wildcats have played five consecutive games that were up for grabs in the final minutes, winning all but the USC game. The Cougars are no strangers to close games, being within a touchdown of their opponent in the fourth quarter in each of their five losses.

Sounds like a lock to be a close game.

Ultimately, give the edge to the Wildcats. A base defense with essentially six defensive backs is a good antidote to WSU's spread offense, able to slow down the Cougars at least some of the time. And ever-cool Solomon should be able to take advantage of matchups against Washington State's linebackers and defensive backs.

Get the defibrillators ready if this comes down to a kick ... Arizona 35, Washington State 32.

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.

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