PULLMAN – A win Saturday at Arizona would provide a nice boost to WSU’s rebuilding efforts. With a victory in Tucson, the Cougars would move within one game of bowl eligibility, guarantee an end to a school-record, four-year string of last-place finishes and equal their highest overall and conference wins totals since 2007.
WSU would also even their season record at 5-5 and tie Washington for fourth place in the Pac-12 Conference North Division at 3-4 if the Huskies lose Friday at No. 13 UCLA.
Of course, no one said winning at Arizona will be easy.
The Wildcats almost stretched their winning streak to four before dropping a 31-26 decision to UCLA over the weekend. Also, WSU’s leaky defense must corral Ka’Deem Carey, who ranks fourth in the nation with 1,221 rushing yards.
“You can tell he’s really mature in running the ball,” WSU linebacker Darryl Monroe said Monday. “He’s really patient.
He’ll play games with you. He’ll show up in one hole, get you out of your alignment, he’ll come back to it.
With this guy, you’ve got to be really disciplined, because he may be one of the most NFL-ready backs, more elite, more complete backs that we’ll see this season.”
Arizona (6-3, 3-3 Pac-12) often runs an up-tempo offense with plenty of read-option and misdirection plays. Top 25 teams Oregon and Arizona State run similar offenses, and those teams combined to score 117 points against WSU in the past two games.
“They (the Wildcats) have great athletes … I think we’re going to have our hands full this week,” Monroe said.
Despite their recent struggles, Monroe says WSU defensive players “have all the confidence in the world.” Safety Deone Bucannon was similarly adamant when asked if the team as a whole has lost confidence.
“No,” Bucannon said firmly. “We believe in each other.”
WSU coaches and players say some of the Cougars’ problems in recent weeks revolved around focusing too much attention on the opposition, rather than performing their own duties correctly.
“We just need to worry about doing our job,” Bucannon said. “You need to have faith in the guy next to you, that he’s going to do your job and you’re going to do your job. Collectively, all together, that’s what makes a great team.”
The Cougars are coming off their second bye in three weeks, so rust could be an issue. The Cougars came out flat against Arizona State two weeks ago and never recovered after falling behind 21-0 in the opening 12 minutes.
“It’s a different vibe around the team,” wide receiver River Cracraft said. “We’re ready for this week. We’re ready to attack it.”
“I think everyone’s excited to get back out there,” offensive tackle Gunnar Eklund said. “They (the two byes) throw you off a little bit timing-wise and rhythm, but it definitely gives your body a chance to catch up.”
The Cougars have played only two day games this season, and Bucannon said he’s looking forward to a noon start in Tucson (11 a.m. Pacific) and projected game-time temperatures in the 70’s. Bucannon said “it’s going to be nice” not sitting around all day watching other college games before playing at night.
Cracraft said he “absolutely” expected to start as a true freshman. He’s started seven games and ranks fourth on the Cougars with 28 catches and 355 receiving yards.
Cracraft said his teammates have helped make the transition to college ball easier for him.
“There’s a lot of leadership on our team, starting with (quarterback) Connor Halliday,” Cracraft said. “It’s easier as a young player to have an older person to look up to. You don’t really have as much pressure. That’s really helped me out.”
Cracraft said his unusual first name stems from his grandfather growing up on the River Clyde in Scotland. River’s middle name is Clyde.
Playing in a bowl game has been a prominent goal of the Cougars all season, but not one of the four players made available to the media Monday mentioned anything about a bowl.
“We have three games left,” Eklund said, “but all that matters is this next one.”
The Cougars have lost three straight games, but none of the players said anything about a losing streak.
“We’re a lot closer than we were the last couple years here,” Eklund said. “We play for each other more.”
One player whom Eklund holds in particularly high esteem is senior center Elliott Bosch.
“Elliott Bosch sets an example as a player and as a person for everyone on this team,” Eklund said.
“He doesn’t say a whole lot – he’s a quiet guy – but he works harder than anyone on the team.”
Eklund added, “He’s a great player and a great guy. I’ve learned a lot from him.”