Arizona Daily Star Wildcats beat reporter Michael Lev gives us an idea of what to expect when the No. 25 Cougars take on Arizona this Saturday
Washington State returns home for this weekend for the first time in three weeks, to play Arizona in the first of a two-game homestand. The 25th-ranked Cougars are guaranteed an electric atmosphere in front of a sold out crowd at Martin Stadium.
We talked to Michael Lev, Arizona football writer for the Arizona Daily Star, to get an idea of what the Cougs should expect from the Wildcats (2-6, 0-5) who will be playing to keep their bowl hopes alive.
Question: How much of Arizona’s overall woes have to do with the fact that they’ve been hit hard by the injury bug on offense and defense?
Michael Lev: A lot. The injuries mainly have struck at critical positions: quarterback, running back and middle linebacker (quarterback of the defense). With Anu Solomon and Brandon Dawkins in and out of the lineup, it’s been a struggle to establish continuity. Things really bottomed out when both were unavailable, forcing Khalil Tate – a 17-year-old true freshman – to start against USC. At running back, the Wildcats are down to their fifth option – senior Samajie Grant, who had played receiver his entire college career. Arizona will be down two middle linebackers (Cody Ippolito, Michael Barton) for Saturday’s game – less than ideal in this or any matchup.
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Question: Break down Brandon Dawkins and Anu Solomon’s abilities. How are they different, and who do you think will start against WSU and why?
Lev: Dawkins is more athletic and more apt to run. He’s an excellent open-field runner who can really impact the game with his legs. He has a strong arm but isn’t a polished passer. He needs to work on finding second and third options in the passing game if the first option isn’t open. Solomon is mobile but much less inclined to run. He’ll keep plays alive and utilize his weapons. He knows the system better than any of the other quarterbacks.
I predicted earlier in the week that Solomon would start. Just an educated guess. We’ll see.
Question: Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has always been known as an offensive mastermind. What accounts for his offense’s struggles this season?
Lev: The QB injuries. The RB injuries. The offensive line has been disappointing as well. I thought that unit might be really good. Instead, it’s been inconsistent. What’s really alarming is that the offense seems to be getting worse. That’s obviously not what you want. RichRod’s feeling is that things will be better this week. Dawkins and Solomon missed a lot of practice time because of injuries. Another week of reps might make a difference. We’ll see.
Question: What’s UA’s biggest strength at that moment? What’s its biggest weakness?
Lev: Arizona’s secondary has been pretty good – which makes for an enticing matchup this week. Dane Cruikshank and Jace Whittaker have established themselves as potential multiyear starters at cornerback. Sophomore safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles probably has been Arizona’s best and most consistent defender. Freshman Isaiah Hayes looks like a keeper. And senior Tellas Jones might be Arizona’s most versatile playmaker.
For most of the season, defensive line has been a sore spot. The unit is undersized and has worn down in the second half of every Pac-12 game. But with the injuries at linebacker, I’m going to go there. There’s just no depth left. As such, I would expect to see some sort of nickel or dime package against the Cougars featuring one or two linebackers and multiple safeties.
Question: Complete the sentence, “Arizona will beat Washington State if ________________.”
Lev: … the Wildcats rediscover their rhythm on offense, win the turnover battle (which has RARELY happened this season) and tackle well to limit the Cougars’ big plays. All of which is a very tall order.