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Two-minute drill: Keys to victory for Washington State against Arizona

Story of the game …

Washington State (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12) seeks to improve its standing in the eyes of the bowl-selection committee, pocket some pre-Apple Cup momentum and secure a memorable road win over its former starting quarterback: Jayden de Laura, who rallied the Cougars last season in the wake of their midseason coaching shakeup then hopped ship to Arizona in the offseason.

The Wildcats (4-6, 2-5) look to build upon their stunning upset win over UCLA and stay alive for a postseason berth.

WSU meets Arizona at 11 a.m. Saturday in Tucson.

When Washington State has the ball …

WSU fans are probably hoping for a prolific passing display from their team. They would love to see their new quarterback, Cameron Ward, outduel their old quarterback.

They are crossing their fingers for a triumphant return from star slot receiver Renard Bell, the seventh-year WSU vet who missed the past four games with an injury. Bell will take on a limited workload this week as he eases his way back to full health.

The longest-tenured player in program history, Bell will add poise to WSU’s offense. A big-play threat whenever he’s targeted, Bell will draw plenty of attention from Arizona defenders. All told, his presence will help open up WSU’s passing game, making life easier for Ward.

“We gotta take advantage of some things that we feel like we can,” Dickert said. “That’s taking the ball down the field. (Arizona) has been giving up some big plays in the passing game, and we gotta take advantage of it.”

Arizona’s passing coverage has been inconsistent, but the Wildcat defense is especially susceptible on the ground. While leaning on the aerial attack might produce more entertainment value, banking on the rushing game could prove to be the more effective method for the Cougars.

WSU is coming off its best two-game rushing stretch of the year, by far. Boosted by starting tailback Nakia Watson’s return from injury, the Cougars racked up 306 yards – their highest rushing output in 16 years – in a rout of Stanford earlier this month, following that up with a 137-yard, three-touchdown day against Arizona State. Watson totaled 282 yards rushing across the past two weeks, averaging 7.8 yards per tote.

On average, the Wildcats yield 218.7 yards per game – 10th in the conference and 124th nationally. According to PFF, Arizona’s is the lowest-graded rushing defense in the nation. The unit has surrendered 300-plus yards in three games and more than 200 in six contests. Opponents average 5.8 yards per carry versus the Wildcats, who have managed only 38 tackles in the backfield – second-to-last in the FBS.

The primary concern for WSU’s offense: Can a shorthanded offensive line hold up? Right guard Ma’ake Fifita is questionable to play after going down with an ankle injury last weekend. If he’s unavailable, sophomore Quinn McCarthy will make his first-career start. Guards Grant Stephens and Christian Hilborn are in the mix for the left tackle job as the Cougars tease out a capable replacement for Jarrett Kingston, who is out for the season.

The Arizona defense is coming off its best game of the season. The Wildcats contained UCLA’s powerful offense during a 34-28 win. They tallied three sacks on star Bruin quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

When Arizona has the ball …

The Cougars might be downplaying the significance of facing their former quarterback, but there’s no denying that de Laura is at the top of WSU’s defensive scouting report.

He is the driving force behind a Wildcat offense that has become the No. 22 most productive unit in the country at 462.8 yards per game. De Laura ranks second in the Pac-12 and seventh in the FBS with 3,128 yards through the air and has gained over 300 yards on the ground, excluding yards lost from sacks.

The junior from Hawaii averages 37 passing attempts per game and completes 63.4% of them. Arizona elects to pass on about 60% of its plays.

WSU fans are familiar with his tendencies. An adept improviser and on-the-run passer – he termed his style of play “backyard football” – de Laura plays with a fearless attitude and flashy energy, an overt level of confidence that can lift everyone around him. Yet when de Laura is rattled, the Wildcats lose pep fast. Under duress, he’s sometimes erratic and forces unwise throws.

De Laura is coming off a sublime effort last weekend, during which he passed for 312 yards and two touchdowns to lead an upset victory over No. 9 UCLA.

Generally speaking, de Laura has been an excellent addition for the Wildcats, who made a major offensive turnaround coming off a one-win 2021 season. They aren’t a well-rounded team yet under second-year coach Jedd Fisch, but their passing game is way ahead of schedule and set up for a bright future.

De Laura’s two favorite targets are both on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, which recognizes the top receiver in the nation. All-American candidate Jacob Cowing, a UTEP transfer, is ninth nationally with 964 yards and second in the Pac-12 with seven touchdowns. Second-year Wildcat Dorian Singer ranks third in the Pac-12 with 83.8 yards per game (12 yards behind Cowing in second place). Arizona’s No. 1 red-zone target, 6-5 freshman Tetairoa McMillan, has contributed 627 yards and a team-best eight TDs.

The Cougars’ passing defense has been tight throughout the back half of the season after a wake-up call against Oregon on Sept. 24. WSU held four of its past six opponents under 200 yards passing. The Ducks are the only team to have amassed more than 300 yards through the air against the Cougars this year.

Chau Smith-Wade and Derrick Langford Jr. make up one of the most efficient outside cornerback tandems in the league, and senior nickel Armani Marsh has been steady on the inside. Smith-Wade is among the highest-graded CBs in the country, according to Pro Football Focus.

“You feel like no matter what (play) you call, when they get singled up out there, they are going to handle the job,” Dickert said of his cornerbacks. “We will be challenged these next two weeks (versus Arizona and Washington). Arizona’s vertical pass game, they have a willingness to do it. … They plan to do it. There will be shots.

“(The Cougars’ DBs) are ready for this challenge. They have risen to the occasion almost every game.”

It’ll be the biggest test so far for WSU’s secondary, which is perilously short on depth at the outside CB and safety positions – Smith-Wade, Langford and safeties Jaden Hicks and Sam Lockett III are shouldering the vast majority of reps.

“Because they’ve been locked in, I think the communication has been high,” Dickert said. “And any time Armani Marsh is out there, he commands the ship. So, I think they’ve done a good job of navigating those waters, but we’ll be challenged extremely these last two weeks.”

De Laura is one of the Pac-12’s better QBs at avoiding sacks. He’s taken just 20 this year, but the Wildcats’ limited offensive line will be tested this weekend by WSU’s relentless defensive front, which has led the way for the team’s impressive effort this season on that side of the ball. Arizona is playing without starting left tackle Jordan Morgan, who reportedly sustained a season-ending ACL injury last week.

Wildcat/Coug connections

• De Laura isn’t the only former Cougars quarterback on Arizona’s roster. Sophomore Gunner Cruz spent two years in Pullman before transferring to the Tucson school ahead of the 2021 season. Cruz appeared in one game as a Cougar, completing 5 of 7 passes off the bench, including a 6-yard TD to Bell, in a 38-13 loss to 16th-ranked USC on Dec. 6, 2020. Cruz won the Wildcats’ QB job during the 2021 preseason and made three starts before suffering a season-ending injury against Colorado on Oct. 16. The 6-foot-6 native of Gilbert, Arizona, threw for 536 yards and two touchdowns on the year.

• Josh Omura joined Arizona’s staff in January after serving as WSU’s recruiting director for part of last season. Omura now works as the Wildcats’ coordinator of high school recruiting.

WSU stat watch

• Senior WSU linebacker Daiyan Henley ranks second in the Pac-12 with 95 tackles – three behind Arizona State linebacker Kyle Soelle. Henley also sits second in the conference in tackles for loss with 12 – 5½ behind USC defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu. Henley is widely projected to be selected in next year’s NFL draft.

“He’s working to be a professional,” Dickert said. “What a playmaker he’s been. I think that’s his best trait. When he’s out there and he’s confident and he has his eyes right, I don’t think there’s many better in the whole country than Daiyan.”

• The Cougars lead the Pac-12 and rank 22nd in the country in tackles for loss with 68. They are third in the conference and 28th nationally with 27 sacks.

• WSU safety Jaden Hicks leads Pac-12 freshmen with 63 tackles.

• Cougars quarterback Cameron Ward is second in the Pac-12 in completions (240), and fifth in yards per game (257.9) and touchdowns (20).

• Cougars edge Brennan Jackson ranks fourth in the league with 10½ TFLs. He earned the Pac-12’s defensive lineman of the week award after recording a career-high two sacks in last weekend’s win over Arizona State. Jackson took to Twitter and credited three true freshman scout-team offensive linemen – Eric Wilder (Syracuse, Utah) and brothers Luke and Landon Roaten (Tomball, Texas).“There’s no divide between upperclassmen and lower-class,” Jackson said of the tweet. “We’re like one big family, whereas in the past, other teams I’ve been on, it seems a little (intimidating) to talk to someone who’s older than you. … I’ve been there (on scout team) and realize it can be tough. You don’t necessarily know what your value is to the team. It’s important that they know they are so valuable.”