While the Cougars have kept their core of offensive players intact, the Wildcats have fielded seven different starting combinations in as many games.
Let this sink in for a second.
The 22 players Arizona has used on defense in seven games this season equal the number of new faces who have made their game-day debuts for Washington State this year on all three phases of the ball.
That’s how banged up the Wildcats’ defense is. They’ve fielded seven different starting combinations in as many games, are on their sixth middle linebacker since they lost All-American Scooby Wright at the beginning of the season, and they might be without starting cornerback DaVonte Neal (hamstring) and safety Tellas Jones (concussion).
WSU has been a pillar of consistency on offense, with the identical core personnel having taken the field in all six games, albeit with some formation-based variations at inside receiver and running back.
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So, from the Cougars’ standpoint, this is a great time for their in-sync offense to hit its stride against an Arizona team that’s ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and has struggled to keep opponents out of the end zone.
After back-to-back Pac-12 wins against Oregon and Oregon State, WSU goes into Tucson, Ariz., in a position similar to when it made the trip to the desert in 2013 and upset the Wildcats to stay in the bowl hunt.
Beat Arizona (5-2, 2-2) on Saturday and — as was the case in 2013 — WSU would have its fifth win, putting the team one win away from bowl eligibility.
That fact hovers on the horizon, something the Cougars are cognizant of but trying not to think about as they focus on the task at hand.
“I feel like this team has done a great job of blocking everything out and just moving along one win at a time,” said running back Jamal Morrow. “We don’t focus on media stuff like that. We focus on moving on, and on our teammates.”
Still, with the Cougars (4-2 overall, 2-1 Pac-12) having already surpassed their win total from 2014, it’s difficult to not draw comparisons between this team and the one that broke a nine-season bowl drought in 2013 by making it to the New Mexico Bowl.
Cougars coach Mike Leach refuses to draw comparisons between this season and 2013, saying, “I don’t do that. You just improve each week and become the best team you can be.”
But defensive lineman Darryl Paulo does see similarities.
“Compared to the bowl season, there’s a lot of similarities,” Paulo said, adding that he’s only speaking for the defense. “We see there’s similar talents, and I think we’re executing at a higher level than that season.”
That statement is not necessarily supported by the statistics. Through six games, the 2015 Cougars defense is doing better than its 2013 counterpart in sacks (averaging 2.67 per game, vs. 1.67 in 2013), and fourth-down conversion defense (allowing only a 30 percent success rate vs. a 50 percent success rate in 2013).
However, this year’s Cougars trail the 2013 defense in total defense (allowing an average of 416.8 yards per game vs. 367.3), rush defense (allowing 208.5 yards per game vs. 148) and third-down conversions (allowing a 43 percent success rate vs. 31 percent in 2013).
WSU’s defense will have its hands full trying to stop an Arizona offense with a proclivity for big plays — the Wildcats have 14 rushing plays for 30 or more yards this season — and an interesting situation unfolding at quarterback.
Starter Anu Solomon is the more accurate passer (62.6 percent completion rate, 13 passing touchdowns, no interceptions) but the Wildcats are likely to sub him out for the more athletic Jerrard Randall (534 rush yards, 11.1 yards per carry) when the matchup calls for it.
WSU’s defense has struggled against running quarterbacks this season, so it’s likely that they’ll face Randall at some point in Tucson.