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Blowout loss to Arizona in 2017 was a sour memory for Washington State. Saturday, the Cougars and Tracy Claeys will try to crack the Wildcats’ code

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 16, 2018, 10:40 p.m.

Washington State defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys
Washington State defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys

PULLMAN – When he was hired by Washington State this offseason, Tracy Claeys didn’t go game-by-game reviewing film of the Cougars’ 2017 football season.

There were, though, a select few tapes Mike Leach wanted his new defensive coordinator to skim through.

The Oct. 28 catastrophe in Tucson, Arizona?

“That was one of the games that was sent to me to look at,” Claeys said Wednesday. “So yeah, I did.”

One year after Washington State’s defense gave up 58 points to Arizona on the road, the first-year coordinator will try to crack the Wildcats’ code when the Pac-12 foes link up at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Martin Stadium.

The eighth-ranked Cougars (9-1, 6-1) can only win a Pac-12 North title Saturday if Oregon State stages an afternoon upset of Washington. But the Huskies are a 33 1/2-point favorite in Seattle, so the division will presumably come down to the final week of the regular season, when WSU hosts UW in another highly anticipated Apple Cup.

It’d be easy to fast-forward to that matchup, except …

“It’s critical we just focus on Arizona,” Leach said during Monday’s news conference. “It’s about as simple as that, really.”

As for pulling off that feat, Leach had a response.

“Well, if we don’t, we won’t play well against Arizona,” Leach said. “I think we will and it’s necessary and we need to try to impart that message the best we can. But this week, the only game we play is Arizona and there’s nothing more important than Arizona. And anybody that does anything other than that is wrong and you’re just looking for a lack of preparation and not putting yourself in the best position to be successful.”

WSU players probably don’t need anyone jogging their memories, but they’re still only about 400 days removed from the 2017 debacle in Tucson, when the Wildcats rushed for 328 yards, passed for 275 and scored more points on the Cougars than any opponent had since 2014, when another one of Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona teams dropped 59.

Good news for the Cougars: Rodriguez is no longer at the helm of the UA program. But junior quarterback Khalil Tate is still the one commanding the Wildcats’ huddles and J.J. Taylor is still getting the bulk of his handoffs.

Those two had a hand in five of the six Arizona touchdowns scored last year in the desert and 674 yards.

Tate, hobbled by a right ankle injury most of the season, hasn’t been quite as spry, although he’s passed for eight touchdowns in his last two games. Taylor totaled 558 rushing yards in the last three games, against Colorado, Oregon and UCLA.

“We’ll just line up in ways that, obviously, you’ve got to contain the quarterback and if you don’t he can have big days running it and throwing it,” Claeys said. “So we’re going to try to make sure we get everyone in the spots to where they can make the plays that we’re asking them to play.”

The Cougars should be successful – or at least more successful – if they can limit Arizona from ripping off explosive plays. There were eight of them last year and they went for yardage totals of 43, 48, 41, 82, 62, 79, 49 and 68.

Leach said earlier in the week the Cougars didn’t leave themselves much of a safety net if one player couldn’t make a tackle. It would then lead to a big chunk play or, the more likely scenario, a long touchdown.

“Obviously, I think one of the biggest things about defense is if you’re going to miss, knowing where to miss,” Claeys said.

The Cougars aren’t missing much at all these days. Claeys has led a defense that ranks fourth in the conference in points allowed (22.1), yards per game allowed (324.1) and, perhaps most important in this matchup, third in rushing yards allowed (125.4).

Now it’s time to see what adjustments they’ve made for an Arizona team that left them with plenty of horrific memories a year ago.

“The biggest thing, I feel like, is we need to do our jobs,” junior safety Jalen Thompson said. “That’s the biggest thing.”

Arizona Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate (14) explodes for a 82-yard run in the second quarter of the college football game between the Washington State Cougars and the Arizona Wildcats on October 28, 2017, at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, AZ. (Carlos Herrera / AP)
Arizona Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate (14) explodes for a 82-yard run in the second quarter of the college football game between the Washington State Cougars and the Arizona Wildcats on October 28, 2017, at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, AZ. (Carlos Herrera / AP)

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