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Picked to finish last in Pac-12, Arizona to be taken seriously after midseason turnaround

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 27, 2017, 9:34 p.m.

TUCSON, Ariz. – There’s a few ways Washington State could be viewing its opponent this week: the team that conceded victory almost as soon it arrived on the Cougars’ doorstep in 2016, losing 69-7 after trailing 38-0 in the second quarter. Or a team that, with one more touchdown in two separate games this season, could be toting a perfect record, ranked in the AP Top 25 and potentially knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff.

You can guess which version of the Wildcats Mike Leach is urging his players to concentrate on leading up to Saturday’s game against Arizona in Tucson (6:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

“They’re a good team and they’ll be a challenging group and they’re playing real well right now,” the WSU coach said. “So we’ve got to go out and play our best game.”

The Wildcats are no longer the Pac-12 South doormat most pegged them to be when preseason polls were released. A consensus of educated guesses from media members around the league suggested that Arizona would finish dead last. The Wildcats collected 61 points, while USC, an overwhelming pick to win the South, garnered 309 points.

The Trojans and the Wildcats are essentially on level ground now – both have one loss, though USC has one game in hand and five Pac-12 wins – so even if Arizona (5-2, 3-1) did lose in Saturday’s game vs. WSU (7-1, 4-1), there’s still a chance Rich Rodriguez’s club could compete for the South provided it found a way to beat USC and Arizona State.

So no, the Wildcats aren’t exactly giving teams the pseudo-bye week most of them were counting on. They enter Saturday as winners of three straight games, and apparently all it took was a quarterback shuffle.

With Khalil Tate behind the wheel, Arizona has been an unstoppable locomotive on offense, averaging more than 45 points per game and 405 rushing yards over the last three games. The shifty redshirt sophomore, who seems to be at his best when everything is collapsing around him, has accounted for 694 rushing yards himself in the games against Colorado, UCLA and Utah.

“When you see a guy as comfortable as he is outside of the pocket, that’s a scary thing defensively,” WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “Because that’s where you want him. And in this case, when the first play breaks down possibly, that might be the worst thing for you because he’s able to do some ad-libbing.”

The Wildcats have been resurgent with Tate operating the offense, but they haven’t completely wiped away their tribulations from the 2016 game in Pullman. In it, the Grinch defense held Arizona to 286 yards of total offense while the Leach offense rolled up 614 – and 474 through the air.

“It was embarrassing, terrible, every bad adjective you can have about it,” Rodriguez said. “That was a long time ago, this is a very different team. We certainly have a lot to prove against those guys, for sure.”

While Arizona has made seismic upgrades at the quarterback position, WSU has done the same on defense – and at times the Cougars have played without as many as four defensive starters on the field. Yet the production hasn’t changed.

Grinch’s unit comes in as No. 7 in the FBS in total defense and if Tate does try to air it out once or twice – he’s averaging just 14 pass attempts per game – WSU’s defensive secondary could very well have his targets covered up. Only two teams in the country are giving up fewer passing yards than the Cougars, who allow 153.9 per game.

“There’s a lot to like about them if you aren’t playing them,” Rodriguez said.


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