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First look: Washington State, fresh off bowl-clinching win, visits Arizona to face former Coug QB Jayden de Laura

What is it? Washington State (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12), fresh off a bowl-clinching victory and riding a two-game winning streak, travels to the desert for a highly anticipated matchup against its former quarterback, who is leading the Arizona Wildcats (4-6, 2-5) in their pursuit of a postseason berth.

Where is it? Arizona Stadium in sunny Tucson.

When is it? Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. Saturday. It will be WSU’s third consecutive afternoon game.

Where can I watch it? Pac-12 Network will carry the broadcast.

Who is favored? The Cougars opened as 4-point favorites.

How did they fare last week? WSU piled up 291 yards and 28 points in the first half, then stagnated after intermission, managing 65 yards. But the Cougars’ four-touchdown advantage in the first half was more than enough for the team to clinch bowl eligibility for the seventh consecutive full season, holding off Arizona State for a 28-18 victory.

The Cougars kept the Sun Devils off the board in the first half. ASU mustered just 62 yards before the break in what was WSU’s best defensive half of the season. In the second half, the Sun Devils outscored WSU 18-0 and outgained the Cougars by 207 yards.

“We gotta be able to handle leads and stay focused,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said Monday during his weekly news conference. “What I love is there are a lot of things we can get better at. It’s execution. (We were) maybe a little conservative at some points in keeping our foot on the gas. … We didn’t finish the way we want to. We gotta focus on what we need to do and stay in the moment. I think that’s what we kinda lacked a little bit on the sidelines Saturday.”

Arizona pulled off a signature victory on the road and stayed alive for a postseason bid, knocking off ninth-ranked UCLA 34-28 on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

Wildcat quarterback Jayden de Laura, who started for WSU over the past two seasons, had his fifth 300-yard passing game of the season. He tossed a go-ahead touchdown with 6:34 remaining and the Wildcat defense denied UCLA on its final drive, which reached the UA 29-yard line with less than a minute to play.

De Laura completed 22 of 28 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions during the Wildcats’ best win under second-year coach Jedd Fisch.

Scouting the opponent

Coming off a one-win season, the Wildcats leveled up offensively, adding de Laura and star receiver Jacob Cowing (UTEP) through the transfer portal.

De Laura rallied the Cougars last year after their midseason coaching shakeup, spearheading an Apple Cup victory and pocketing Pac-12 freshman of the year honors. He transferred out shortly after the season, committing to Arizona on the same day that quarterback Cameron Ward announced his plans to transfer to WSU.

“I’ve always been really impressed with what Jayden can do, and I appreciate everything he’s done for us,” Dickert said. “I think one of those things that’s important is sometimes change is good for everybody. That’s what this situation is about. He’s probably as good as it gets off-script. He’s a good improviser, and they’ve been making a ton of plays scrambling around.”

Defense has been a glaring issue for Arizona throughout the season, but the Wildcats’ offense is among the most productive in the country. And there’s no player more important to the team’s success than de Laura.

The fiery Hawaii native ranks second in the Pac-12 with 312.8 passing yards per game. He has thrown 24 touchdowns against eight interceptions on a 63.4% completion rate. Arizona’s passing offense ranks sixth in the country and the team’s 462.8 yards per game is good for 22nd nationally.

De Laura’s favorite target, Cowing, is one of the best receivers in the FBS. He averages 95.6 yards per game and has scored seven touchdowns. Sophomore Dorian Singer (83.8 yards per game) is also on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award.

“Defensively, we’re going to be extremely challenged on not giving up big plays,” Dickert said, noting that Arizona averages over nine yards per passing attempt, “which is incredible. … Any time you talk about passing offense, you need to match that with a four-down rush.”

WSU is well-equipped to contain explosive offenses. The Cougars boast the Pac-12’s No. 1 scoring defense (19.8 ppg) and rank in the top four in each of the conference’s major defensive stat categories. WSU leads the Pac-12 in tackles for loss (68) and sits third with 27 sacks. Arizona has given up 12 sacks across its past four games.

When the Wildcats’ passing offense struggles, the team crumbles. Arizona doesn’t enjoy a reliable ground game and its defense is among the worst in the Pac-12.

Before its upset of UCLA, Arizona allowed more than 40 points in four consecutive losses to the Pac-12’s top outfits – Oregon, Washington, USC and Utah. The Wildcats gave up 39 points in a Week 2 loss to Mississippi State and yielded 49 points in a Week 4 defeat at Cal.

The Wildcats rank 11th in the Pac-12 and 124th nationally in scoring defense (37.2 ppg). They are 11th in the conference and 127th nationally in total defense (472.1 yards per game). Arizona is the lowest-graded team nationally in rushing defense, per Pro Football Focus, allowing 218.7 yards per game.

“Sometimes, they’ve been hurting themselves,” Dickert said. “Those are things we gotta try to take advantage of. But I thought last week (the Wildcats) were sound and doing things right and playing hard. They harassed the quarterback last week. I think that was the biggest difference.”

Arizona’s defense ranks in the bottom four nationally with 13 sacks and 38 TFLs.

That bodes well for a WSU offensive line that has been plagued by injuries in the past two games. But the Cougars’ ground game is steadily improving behind tailback Nakia Watson, who returned to the lineup earlier this month after missing two games with an injury and has recorded 282 yards and four touchdowns on 36 carries over the past two weeks.

The Wildcats have picked off just two passes this year. While Ward hasn’t been phenomenal in recent weeks, the sophomore transfer is avoiding turnovers. He has thrown seven touchdowns against one interception over the past five games.

What happened last time?

WSU clinched a bowl berth with a memorable performance in the fog on senior night, routing the visiting Wildcats 44-18 on Nov. 19, 2021. Senior WSU tailback Max Borghi tallied a career-high 139 yards and veteran slots Calvin Jackson Jr. and Travell Harris caught two touchdowns apiece as WSU amassed eight plays of more than 25 yards. De Laura passed 13 of 22 for 259 yards. The Wildcats own a 27-18 advantage in the all-time series, but the Cougars have won four of the past five matchups.

Things to know

1. After leading a stunning win over UCLA, de Laura was asked about facing his former team. His response – “Just watch … it’s personal” – caused quite a commotion online. On Monday, a reporter brought up de Laura’s comments during Dickert’s news conference.

“I’m not a big believer in external motivators,” the first-year Cougars coach said. “… I’m aware of (the comments), but our focus is on what we need to do to get better, period. Anything else is a distraction to the mission.”

2. Standout Cougar edge rusher Brennan Jackson took home Pac-12 defender of the week honors Monday after logging two of WSU’s four sacks against ASU. Jackson paces his team and ranks seventh in the Pac-12 with five sacks.

“A lot of people see the results, but I get to see the extra weight sessions, how much he takes care of his nutrition and the character that man has,” Dickert said of Jackson. “He deserves everything he’s getting.”

3. Right guard Ma’ake Fifita went down with an ankle injury early in the third quarter of Saturday’s game. Dickert said the injury “wasn’t anything major,” but Fifita’s status against Arizona is uncertain.

“We’ll see throughout the week as he goes,” Dickert said. “He might be limited a ton in practice. We’ll see what we can get him to on Saturday.”

4. Senior slot receiver Robert Ferrel exited the lineup in the second quarter versus ASU after sustaining an unspecified injury. Senior strong safety Jordan Lee missed his second consecutive game after suffering an injury against Utah on Oct. 27. Both “should be out there (at practice) in some capacity this week,” Dickert said, “and we’ll see where we can get them to on Saturday.”