Mike Leach may gamble on offense, but he likes his defense to stay solid, especially against the running game.
Control gaps, contain the pocket and never, ever give up explosive plays.
That didn’t happen against the Wildcats, who detonated the Cougar defense often enough for a 58-37 upset win in Tucson.
The Wildcats’ biggest threat is sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate, who has rushed for 694 yards in his first three starts while also throwing just 10 incompletions in that time.
The Cougars defused Tate and the Wildcats early Saturday night, but make a mistake and the Pac-12 offensive player of the week the past three weeks, exploits it.
Late in the first half Tate, who had 16 rushing yards at the time, ran a quarterback power left and broke free. He raced down the left sideline for 82 yards before Jalen Thompson, who has played against Tate since they were 9 years old, chased him down at the 2-yard line. Arizona settled for a field goal.
After the Cougars took their first lead in the third quarter, J.J. Taylor exploded for 62 yards up the middle, before Marcellus Pippins caught him at the 3. This time Arizona punched it in to retake the lead.
After Tyler Hilinski’s third interception, the big play hit the Cougars once more. It was Taylor again, avoiding Hercules Mata’afa in the backfield and sprinting right up the middle for a 79-yard score.
The Cougars also gave up a 48-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jamie Nunley, another 68-yard pass to Nunley, only his third and fourth catches of the season and a fourth-quarter 49-yard scoring run from Tate, who finished with 146 yards rushing.
Arizona (6-2 and 4-1 in the Pac-12, tied atop the South standings) rushed for 310 yards, 272 of them coming on four plays. Tate passed for another 275 yards, 200 coming on four throws.
Eight plays over 40 yards, adding up to 472 yards. That’s explosive by any definition.
The blame seemed to lie mainly on the guys in the middle of the defense, safeties Robert Taylor and Thompson and inside linebackers Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers.
They may have been four of the Cougars’ five leading tacklers, but Taylor, who had his third fumble recovery of the year, was burned twice on play action and overran Tate on his 82-yard run.
And though Woods came up with a second-half interception, he and Rogers struggled with Arizona’s misdirection at times.
The defense wasn’t only unit to give up explosive plays, the offense did, too
Hilinski, who relieved Luke Falk late in the second quarter, threw four interceptions. The last one was taken 66 yards to the end zone by middle linebacker Colin Schooler, sealing Arizona’s win.
The way Leach deals with injuries, it’s impossible to know whether Falk, holder of just about every Pac-12 career passing record, was injured, but he did not return. He did, however, have his helmet on, and threw often on the sidelines. He just didn’t play, despite Hilinski’s interceptions.
Leach has changed quarterbacks before – this season
Hilinski led the Cougars to a 47-44 triple overtime win against Boise State.
The change worked immediately against the Wildcats, with Hilinski leading WSU to a score just before halftime.
The touchdown cut Arizona’s lead to 20-14 and gave WSU momentum for nine seconds. That’s how long it took for a kickoff return and an Arizona 57-yard field goal at the half.
But Hilinski wrested it back despite throwing an interception on the first drive after intermission. In the next two possessions, both following Arizona turnovers, Hilinski guided the Cougars (7-2, 4-2) into the end zone. The first was on an 8-yard pass to freshman Tay Martin – his second touchdown catch in two games – and the second on another scramble, this one from a yard out.
The run gave Washington State a 27-23 lead, a lead that lasted all of 31 seconds.
He also threw a 49-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Tay Martin and finished the night 45-of-61 passing for 509 yards, the first 500-yard passing game of his career.