Arizona-WSU preview: UA point shortage, players to watch, predic - Tucson News Now

Arizona-WSU preview: UA point shortage, players to watch, prediction

Rich Rodriguez (Photo courtesy of Colin Prenger/Arizona Athletics) Rich Rodriguez (Photo courtesy of Colin Prenger/Arizona Athletics)
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

Rich Rodriguez is driving a Mercedes with four flat tires.

It's not as if he's suddenly forgotten the gas is on the right, brakes on the left, but he can only go so fast before the whole car begins to shake, rattle and slow.

You are following along here, right?

The Arizona Wildcats -- without adequate quarterback health, receivers playing running back and an offensive line whose play is best-described by "meh" -- are seeing diminishing returns in Pac-12 play, from 28 points to 24 to 23 to 14 to 10. All losses.

In Rodriguez's first season, in 2012, Arizona scored 30-plus points seven times in conference play.

In 2013, five times.

In 2014, six times.

In 2015, seven times.

In 2016, none.

"When you're not scoring, everybody wants to look at the players or coaches, or a combination of everything," said Rodriguez, whose team plays at No. 25 Washington State on Saturday.

"The system has been pretty good in the past; we can score points. We've seen every kind of defense known to mankind, so a lot of times it is just getting them in the right play and executing that play when it is called."

Yes, executing.

That didn't happen often last week, when Brandon Dawkins started and completed 5 of 15 throws. That didn't happen much in the previous game, when true freshman Khalil Tate had to start because of injury, completing one pass by halftime.

You might want to stop here. If you're brave enough, you can continue on to read this stat:

Arizona has completed 16 of 46 passes (34.8 percent) in the past two games.

Here are the mitigating circumstances:

-- Arizona has no traditional running game, because its top three running backs heading into the season (Nick Wilson, Orlando Bradford and J.J. Taylor) are unavailable.

-- Tate just wasn't ready for a challenge like USC. He was replaced late in the game by a tight end.

-- Dawkins missed much of October practice because of a rib injury and the concussion. He was rusty last weekend, and it showed.

-- Anu Solomon was rusty, too, playing two series last week in his first action since suffering a knee injury after the season-opener.

Will this week be any better? Is there more air in the tires?

Dawkins, who was quick to tuck the ball and run last week, thereby missing open receivers, said, "I don't feel there is any throw in the ball, I can't make."

Perhaps he will be in better rhythm this week, trusting what he sees downfield. Solomon will be a week healthier. Converted running back Samajie Grant will make his second start at running back, and Rodriguez said the senior's in-game progress was evident when reviewing the game film.

"It just takes time and repetition," Dawkins said of his accuracy. "We're working on it every day."

BY THE NUMBERS

5 -- Consecutive losses for Arizona (2-5, 0-5), its longest skid since the 2011 season.

6 -- Consecutive victories by Washington State (6-2, 5-0), its longest streak since the 2003 season.

10 -- Turnovers forced this season by Arizona -- six coming against Grambling State. So, that's four for the other seven games, including an interception that Dane Cruikshank fumbled right back to Stanford last week.

10 -- Career 400-yard passing games by Washington State QB Luke Falk, including a 514-yard throw-fest against Arizona last season.

16 -- Rushing touchdowns by WSU's trio of running backs Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks. The Cougars actually do have a ground game.

5 PLAYERS TO WATCH

WSU DL Hercules Mata'afa -- I'll try to not take this personally. According to a story in the Seattle Times, his mother had narrowed down her list of names to "Hercules" and "Anthony." Said Sophie Mata'afa, laughing: "If he was a teeny little thing, he would have been Anthony." Instead, he came out 9 pounds, 3 ounces and, according to the story, had the strength to hold up his neck without support.

Hercules, a sophomore, is one of the top defensive linemen in the Pac-12, with 9.5 tackles for loss, including three sacks. What really hurts from an Arizona perspective is that Mata'afa was recruited out of Maui by ex-Wildcat Joe Salave'a, the defensive line coach who went to Washington State when he was not re-hired by new coach Rich Rodriguez after the 2011 season.

Arizona LB Jake Matthews -- Matthews is a guy you love to have on your team. He's smart. Can play multiple positions. Knows his role. Solid player. Plays hurt. But even he admitted this week he's not as a fast as has was last year before a foot injury, and now he's the next man up at middle linebacker if Michael Barton -- who replaced Cody Ippolito -- can't play because of a knee injury.

WSU QB Luke Falk -- Bad news for the Pac-12: Falk denied reports this week that he would leave for the NFL after this season. The junior is the accurate, quick-thinking triggerman that coach Mike Leach needs in his Air Raid attack, and he's second nationally in passing yards with 365.8 per game. "The quarterback can make every throw on the football field," said Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates. "He's an NFL guy."

Arizona S Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles -- Here is a bright spot for the Cats. Flannigan-Fowles, a sophomore, leads the team with 51 tackles and is tied for the lead with two interceptions. He'll have opportunity a-plenty against a Cougars team that has attempted the third-most passes in the country (50.4) per game. Being good tacklers and not allowing yards after catch is huge in this matchup.

WSU WR Gabe Marks -- The all-conference receiver has 56 catches, including nine for touchdowns. He and fellow senior River Cracraft (otherwise known as "the player most likely to be a Tucson intersection") are the only teammates in Pac-12 history to have 200-plus career catches at the same time.

INJURY UPDATE

Arizona should get back its best defensive lineman, Sani Fuimaono, who missed last week's game because of a concussion. He is listed as probable.

Questionable: LB Michael Barton and CB DaVonte Neal. Neal has lost his starting job at Jace Whittaker, but this is still a potentially key loss because you need all the cover men you can get against Washington State's spread attack.

Tyrell Johnson, a slot receiver who had been tried at running back, is out because of a hamstring injury.

PREDICTION

The only X-factors here are Brandon Dawkins' ability to break off a big run (possible, assuming we don't see more of Anu Solomon this week) and Arizona's knack for creating turnovers (which doesn't exist).

Otherwise, straight-up, the Wildcats don't have enough offense to keep up with Washington State, which has played three tight games in a row, winning them all. This might be close for a while -- Arizona often plays well in the first half -- but the Cougs have the superior horses, and this one shouldn't be dramatic at the end.

Washington State 42, Arizona 21.

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