TUCSON, Ariz. – A lot has happened since the last time the Washington State football team faced Arizona in 2010. Both programs fired underperforming coaches and hired high-profile replacements known for their respective high-octane offenses.
While the bowl-eligible Wildcats (6-3, 3-3 Pac-12) appear further along in their rebuilding process than the Cougars, WSU (4-5, 2-4) can take a big step on the road to respectability with a win in Tucson today. Still, the Cougars aren’t treating the game any differently.
“Scheme-wise we’re not doing anything differently. You’ve got to win your individual battles,” freshman receiver River Cracraft said. “That’s a big thing Coach (Mike) Leach takes pride in. It’s a different vibe around the team and we’re ready for this week and we’re ready to attack it.”
A win would guarantee the Cougars’ best record since 2007, when current WSU freshmen were grappling with the upcoming challenges of being a teenager. It would show discernible growth for a program that needs signs of progress to show to fans, boosters and recruits.
There are plenty of reasons to think they can do it. While the Wildcats boast a respectable 6-3 record, they have yet to beat a team with a winning record. And after playing three straight games at night, the Cougars will finally have an opportunity to play during the day.
“The day game better duplicates their day,” Leach said. “They may get up and lift and then go to meetings and practice, which is later than 11 but they’re active by 11 … In this day and age you don’t have any control over when your games are if you want to be on TV. There was a time when you could set your schedule and play when you wanted to, but that’s long gone.”
The Cougars also have the benefit of 16 days to prepare for the game, while Arizona is coming off an emotional 31-26 home loss to UCLA this past weekend. WSU’s extended break is the result of a bye week following a Thursday night game against Arizona State.
“It’s a unique situation, never heard of it, never seen it,” Leach said. “So we recruited, we game-planned, got some good work with our young guys.”
It’s also possible that the game will be a so-called “trap game” for the Wildcats. With a matchup against No. 6 Oregon next week and then a rivalry game with No. 21 Arizona State the week after that, WSU may be able to catch Arizona off guard, at least initially.
But there will be challenges for the Cougars as well. The home team will feature one of the nation’s best running backs in Ka’Deem Carey, whose 152 yards per game lead the Pac-12. The Cougars will also have to adjust to playing against a left-handed quarterback for the first time this season in B.J. Denker.
“Some of the plays will go in a different direction,” WSU linebackers coach Ken Wilson explained. “He’s not a big guy, but he’s deceptive. He can outrun you, he has got some good shake to him, he knows how to avoid big hits, and he knows how to get first downs with his feet.”
Beating any Pac-12 team on the road is a tall task, and the Wildcats aren’t favored by 11 points because the pros in Las Vegas are fond of losing money. But UA will likely be the Cougars’ easiest opponent since they beat Cal on Oct. 5, their last win.
With just three games left in the regular season and two wins away from bowl eligibility, there’s no time like the present for WSU to pick up a victory.