Arizona comes fresh off of a bye week needing just one win to get to bowl eligibility. This would be a huge positive in Kevin Sumlin‘s first year at the helm. For this to happen, the Wildcats need to win a few key matchups consistently on Saturday against Washington State.
Khalil Tate, QB
Matchup to watch for: Tate vs. Washington State pass defense.
A record-breaking season a year ago sure seems like forever ago for Arizona fans, but Khalil Tate has returned from a mid-season injury to ignite a Wildcats offense that has averaged 43 points per game over the last two weeks.
While Tate has not been able to get the legs going, he has tossed eight touchdowns against just two interceptions and is coming off a 350 yard game against Colorado.
This week, Tate takes on a Washington State team that is in the top 3rd in the nation in passing yards allowed, with just under 200 yards per game. The Cougars have only picked off eight passes this season, but are also in the top 3rd of the country in pass efficiency defense, so something has to give Saturday in Pullman.
Shawn Poindexter, WR
Matchup to watch for: Poindexter vs. Darrien Molton Sr.
On offense, it is Shawn Poindexter powering the Arizona passing attack. Outside of a brief, three-week slump, Poindexter has been consistently able to win matchups at the line of scrimmage and stretch the field. On Saturday, Poindexter will lineup against Darrien Molton Sr. – Washington State’s top cover corner.
Molton, however, is only 5’10” so Poindexter has a decided matchup advantage at the line of scrimmage. With a career-high 18.3 yards per catch to go with eight touchdowns, Poindexter is the Wildcat’s top deep threat.
On the other side, while Molton only has one interception, the smaller, faster corner has eight passes defended making for an interesting back-and-forth battle to watch.
Layth Friekh, OL
Matchup to watch for: Friekh vs. Washing State run defense.
Layth Friekh is the leader of the Arizona offensive line, and with the entire unit healthy, the Wildcat’s ground attack has reached a new level over the past two weeks. This could all come crashing down on Saturday, as the Cougars run defense gives up a hair over 125 yards per game and is even better at home (104 yards per game).
Luckily, Arizona is one of the better rushing teams in the PAC 12. J.J. Taylor is second in the conference with 1,221 rushing yards, and as a team, Arizona has run wild – averaging 246 rushing yards per game over the past two weeks. This is a strength-on-strength matchup, so look for both teams to try to set the tempo early and often.
Kylan Wilborn, DE
Matchup to watch for: Wilborn vs. Gardner Minshew
Washington State is a pass-first team, meaning that Arizona’s fastest pass-rusher, Kylan Wilborn gets a chance to focus almost exclusively on getting to the quarterback. The Cougars simply do not run the ball in volume (James Williams is 13th in the PAC-12 rushing ranks), so Arizona’s success on defense will be largely based on how effectively the defense can collapse the pocket and contain Gardner Minshew.
After not playing two weeks ago against Colorado, Wilborn essentially gets two weeks to prepare for the Cougars top-ranked passing attack. Wilborn impressed a season ago with 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles but has not been able to replicate similar success this season.
With Minshew arguably the best quarterback in the PAC 12, Wilborn’s success in getting to the quarterback is an important matchup to watch for.
Dereck Boles, DL
Matchup to watch for: Boles vs. Washington State offensive line.
I expect Dereck Boles, Arizona’s most consistent defensive lineman to contain the (nearly nonexistent) Cougars run game with ease. All season long, Boles has shown quickness at the line of scrimmage and found ways to make stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, even as teammates have struggled.
For Boles, facing a minimum-level rushing attack makes getting to the quarterback all the more important. When the man behind center for Washington State, Gardner Minshew, leads the PAC-12 with 3,852 yards, and is nearly 1,000 yards ahead of Stanford’s K.J. Costello, getting home to the quarterback to slow the passing attack is even more important.
In this case, Boles only has one sack on the season, so while the two quarterbacks can be exciting, how Boles and co. are getting to the passer is no-doubt an underrated matchup to keep an eye on.
J.J. Taylor, RB
Matchup to watch for: Taylor vs. Dominick Silvels and Peyton Pelluer.
I have already written that J.J. Taylor, the Wildcat’s workhorse back, is second in the PAC 12 with 1,221 rushing yards. However, Taylor has shown that he can handle an elite workload, and is coming off of a 40 carry, 192 yard game against Colorado.
Arizona is ready to ride Taylor as far as they can, but against Washington State, nothing comes easy on the ground, where linebackers Dominick Silvels and Peyton Pelluer have combined for 90 tackles, and rank 1-2 on the Cougar’s season sack totals.
Washington State boasts a very good run defense, however, the defensive line has almost zero presence in conference defensive leaderboards, meaning that the run defense is powered by the linebackers. Arizona will look to run the ball early and often, and look to control the clock (and the Cougar offense) on the road. On the other side, Washington State has been successfully stopping the run all season.
Something has to give, especially with Arizona one win from bowl eligibility, and Washington State looking secure a first-ever conference championship game.