TUCSON, Ariz. – Unbeaten in November and bowl eligible once again, Washington State is riding a late surge of momentum heading into a highly anticipated final stretch of its season.
The Cougars close the campaign Nov. 26 seeking their second consecutive Apple Cup victory. Before then, they’ll travel to the desert to meet their ex-quarterback and an Arizona team that can’t afford to lose.
“There’s going to be some great storylines for everybody the next two weeks, but as a program, we’re focused on what we need to do,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “We’re not playing one individual. We’re playing an Arizona team that is much-improved.
“We’re focused on Arizona. That’ll be the message from our guys. We’re excited about this opportunity to get back to .500 in the league and to advance to where we want to go.”
WSU (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12) kicks off at 11 a.m. Saturday against QB Jayden de Laura and the Wildcats (4-6, 2-5) at Arizona Stadium.
De Laura held the starting job for the past two seasons at WSU. He helped rally the team to a winning record in 2021 after its midseason coaching shakeup, leading a drought-snapping Apple Cup, earning Pac-12 freshman of the year honors then bolting for the desert as WSU welcomed in a new offensive staff and prized transfer quarterback Cameron Ward.
While the Cougars have been strong defensively and up and down on offense, the Wildcats boast a potent offense but are held back by their defense, which surrendered over 40 points in four of the past five games. De Laura has been a vital piece in the program’s progress following a one-win 2021 season. He’s the Pac-12’s second-most productive passer and ranks seventh in the nation with 3,128 yards.
The high-energy Hawaii native shined for the Wildcats last weekend during their best win of the year, a 34-28 stunner at No. 9 UCLA.
“He just plays with moxie and he plays with confidence,” second-year Wildcats coach Jedd Fisch said of his quarterback.
After the win, de Laura took a veiled shot at his former team, calling the game against WSU “personal.” He’ll have to keep his emotions in check this weekend if the Wildcats hope to get past a confident Cougars team and stay alive for a postseason berth.
“I think Jayden has handled himself extremely well all week long,” Fisch said. “I think he’s excited about playing another Saturday. It’s an opportunity for him to put back-to-back games together. … To have two of his best games in a row, regardless of the opponent, that’s been our focus with him all week long.”
De Laura knows it’ll be a difficult task against a feisty WSU defense that has avoided major lapses in all but one game this year.
“They have a really good defense. Their front is really good, starting with (edges) Brennan Jackson, RJ Stone,” de Laura said. “The list goes on and on.”
Clearly, de Laura and the Cougars’ defense are uniquely familiar with the tendencies of the other. That history just adds more entertainment value to what should be an exciting matchup between an explosive Pac-12 offense and one of the conference’s defensive heavyweights.
“We’re facing two of the top-10 passing offenses in the country in the last two weeks,” Dickert said. “Defensively, we’re going to be extremely challenged on not giving up big plays. … I think we have the tools and the pieces and the guys to go affect the passer the next two weeks.”
WSU paces the league in points allowed per game (19.8) and tackles for loss (68), and ranks in the Pac-12’s top four in every other defensive statistical category. Fisch acknowledged that the Cougars enjoy “one of the best defenses, if not the best defense in the Pac-12.
“We know we got our work cut out for us,” he said. “I think they have a great scheme. They’re very disciplined and we’ll certainly be challenged.”
WSU routed Stanford earlier this month and put away Arizona State last weekend to secure a bowl trip for the seventh consecutive full season.
The Cougars had their finest offensive performance of the year versus the Cardinal and were crisp on the attack for the first half against the Sun Devils, but went stagnant in the second half of last week’s win.
The Cougars passing game will return a standout playmaker and veteran leader this weekend in senior slot receiver Renard Bell, who missed the past four games with an arm injury.
If the Cougars can overcome shorthandedness on their offensive line, they may be able to rely on their ground game, which is coming off its most productive two-game stretch of the season.
“They’ve been able to make you spread out defensively, then they have had very good box counts to be able to run the ball,” Fisch said of WSU’s offense. “Teams have been removing safeties (from the defensive box) … which has allowed them to get positive yards downhill.
“These guys have shown they can run the ball just as well as they can throw it these last few weeks.”
Arizona’s rushing defense is among the worst in the nation. The Wildcat defense, overall, is among the worst in the Pac-12, but the group performed admirably against the Bruins last week, putting steady pressure on star UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
Arizona snapped a four-game skid and scored its first signature win of the Fisch era after a rebuilding year in 2021 and a tough string of losses this year – four of them against Pac-12 title contenders, one versus former WSU coach Mike Leach’s Mississippi State and the other an ugly defeat at Cal. The Wildcats are looking for their first two-game winning streak since October 2019.
“We gotta win this game,” Fisch said. “We have to do everything we possibly can, do everything in our power to play the best game we can possibly play and know we’re playing a very good team. (The Cougars) have had a lot of years of success in a row.”
With a win, the Cougars would make a case for a better postseason destination and secure a boost ahead of their Apple Cup finale versus Washington. They wouldn’t admit it publicly, but it’d be a little extra satisfying to get the best of their former QB, too.
“We’re going to be mature competitors,” Dickert said. “That’s what this is about. Nothing else.”