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Cougars may be running into trouble against Arizona’s big-play ground game

Arizona running back Jared Baker, front, celebrates a touchdown in a win over Colorado on Saturday. Baker is part of a big-play ground game. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
Arizona running back Jared Baker, front, celebrates a touchdown in a win over Colorado on Saturday. Baker is part of a big-play ground game. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – If current trends hold true, an unstoppable force will meet an immensely movable object on Saturday and Washington State will lose its battle of strength-on-weakness with Arizona, and potentially the game, as well.

The Wildcats (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) have been one of the country’s best teams at breaking long runs and WSU (4-2, 2-1) has been among the country’s worst teams at stopping them.

The Wildcats have run the ball for 20 or more yards 21 times this year, the third-best mark in the country. No team has more 30-plus yard rushes than UA’s 14. Conversely, the WSU defense has allowed 13 runs to gain 20 or more yards, a mark that ranks 105th out of 128 FBS teams.

Most of the teams who have given up more long runs than the Cougars have also played one more game, because WSU had its bye week early in the season.

Granted, the Cougars have also faced some pretty potent rushing attacks. Pac-12 rushing leader Royce Freeman of Oregon is in the Cougars’ rearview mirror, as are effective rushing quarterbacks such as Portland State’s Alex Kuresa and Oregon State’s Seth Collins.

Containing the Pac-12’s No. 2 rushing offense will be the biggest challenge yet for the WSU defense. Explosive rushing attacks are the touchstone of a Rich Rodriguez-coached team, and the UA coach hasn’t had a team rush for better than the Wildcats’ current 297.4 yards per game since his 2006 West Virginia group that won 11 games.

The WSU defense has shown that it can stop the run. It’s most impressive effort came in a near-win at California in which the Cougars held the Golden Bears to 2.6 yards per rush and more than 100 rushing yards below their weekly average.

But the next week at Oregon, WSU couldn’t stop the Ducks from repeatedly gashing the defense to the tune of 8.2 yards per carry, and that was against an offense already made one-dimensional by the absence of starting quarterback Vernon Adams.

Of course, the Cougars won that game and held the Ducks to 2.7 points per drive (not including drives immediately before the ends of halves) and .46 points per offensive play prior to overtime, which is not particularly good but also not untenable.

It’s not necessarily the average rushing play that’s been getting the Cougars, however. WSU linebackers Jeremiah Allison and Peyton Pelluer have played well and been in the correct spots since the first couple games, and while the Cougars aren’t tackling as well as they need to be, the team has improved immensely in that area since the first half against Wyoming.

But the defense’s effectiveness against the Wildcats will be determined by how many big runs are broken by running back Nick Wilson and backup quarterback Jerrard Randall, who averages 12.2 yards per carry.

Although starter Anu Solomon is once again healthy, the Wildcats will probably try Randall some to exploit WSU’s struggles preventing explosive rushing plays. If the WSU defense can make diminishing that weakness part of its ongoing improvement, the Cougars will be much more likely to topple the Wildcats in Tucson.

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