Arizona 101: Is WSU opponent still unproven?

DESPITE A 6-3 record, Arizona may be the least proven team in the Pac-12. Try this on for size -- the Wildcats yet to beat an opponent projected to make a bowl game. WSU and UA have only played two common opponents -- USC and Cal. The Wildcats lost to the Trojans and narrowly beat the Bears 33-28. And so on paper, the Cougars may just be the better team. But…

But it has been over a month since WSU's last victory and they've been blown out in each of their last four losses, leading fans to wonder if the wind has left the crimson sails with three regular season games left.

It is up to the Cougar defense to take the intensity back up a notch and contain a potent Wildcat running game.

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Cougars (4-5) vs Wildcats (6-3)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
11:00 am Pacific Time

WHERE:
Arizona Stadium (56,522)

TELEVISION:
Pac-12 Network

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
Arizona by 12

LAST MEETING:
2010, WSU lost 24-20.

THE SERIES:
WSU is 13-25 in the series.

CF.C PREDICTION:
Cougs 27, Wildcats 24

THE WILDCATS ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
Ka'Deem Carey, RB: The reigning NCAA rushing champion currently ranks No. 4 nationally with 1,221 yards this season. He averages 153 rushing yards per game and an impressive 5.7 yards per attempt.

B.J. Denker, QB: Provides the passing threat that keeps defense off of Carey, but is actually an outstanding runner in his own right. He has 641 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns to go with his 1688 passing yards and 11 passing touchdowns.

Overview
Arizona uses a spread option run-based offense centered around Carey and Denker. It strains defenses because it generally features 4 receiver formations. But don't be fooled, the Wildcats run the ball almost twice as often as they pass. As with the likes of Oregon, stopping it isn't as simple as just stacking the box, as it leaves the secondary highly vulnerable.

Strategy
Arizona's offense really struggles when it doesn't achieve 200 rushing yards per game. Denker can throw, but is not equipped to carry to offensive load on his own. Overall, this will be a massive test of WSU's tackling ability – which started out impressive but has since plummeted to inconsistent in recent games. Getting Arizona into third-and-long situations is difficult, but essential. There's no big mystery here – WSU has to take away the run if they're going to win this game.

Key Statistic
Twelve consecutive 100-yard rushing games: Carey's current streak leads all active FBS players.

THE WILDCATS ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
Tra'Mayne Bondurant, Spur: One of Arizona's hybrid safeties. Leads the team with 3 interceptions, but also has two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss.

Tevin Hood, NT: The lone defensive starter weighing more than 270 pounds. With so many defensive backs in this defense, Hood provides much needed beef.

Overview
Jeff Casteel uses a 3-3-5 system; essentially a reverse of the multiple spread look of Rich Rodriguez's offense. It is a run stopping scheme, masked as nickel. Outside of the 3 down linemen, the defense is highly versatile and generally focuses on the run. This is partly out of necessity, as it is one of the lightest defensive units in the country. But the presence of 5-6 defensive backs keep it right at home in passing situations and the Wildcats have generated 12 interceptions this season.

Strategy
From my chair, the Cal tape should scream "Change-up!" to Mike Leach and Connor Halliday because the Arizona defense is willing to surrender the run to Air Raid offenses. Cal ran the ball for 130 yards against Arizona, averaging 5.0 yards per rush attempt. But Arizona never wavered and kept focused on the Bears passing game, holding it to an anemic 5.2 yards per pass attempt. Arizona barely won that game, 33-28. The Cougars can expect to be equally effective on the ground and would take a massive amount of pressure off themselves if they ran the ball frequently against UA's undersized defense. The question, of course, is whether they will or not. And there is one caveat to that…

Key Statistic
Fourteen sacks this season: After facing many of the best pass rushing defenses in the country Connor Halliday appears to get a reprieve this week. Arizona ranks No. 91 in sacks nationally and has had to blitz to generate pressure for the most part.

THE WILDCATS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Senior kicker Jake Smith has hit from as far as 53 yards but he also has three misses inside of 40 yards this season. He is solid, but not a sure thing.

FINAL THOUGHTS
-Familiarity between these programs is extremely low. It is also WSU's first matchup with Arizona since 2010 and the first trip to Tucson since 2009. Further, this is Mike Leach's first meeting against Rich Rodriguez.

-Arizona is absolutely beatable, but it depends on which Cougar team shows up – the one of the last few weeks or the one from the early part of the season. Arizona's offense is one dimensional and the defense has flaws. The only truly impressive win of the Wildcats' six victories is Utah, and they have only won one game since September.

WSU played both USC and Cal far better than UA did. That doesn't count for much as those games seem like ages ago, but the Cougars should be hopeful after watching Arizona tape during the bye week. The Wildcats' "nickel" is beatable if the Cougars punish it by running the ball more often, and then take flight.

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