After a roller coaster four to five years in Pullman that involved the highest of highs and lowest of lows, the senior class for WSU Football (5-5, 4-3) will take the field one last time at Gesa Field to play the lowly Arizona Wildcats (1-9, 1-6). The Cougs are coming off a loss to No. 3 Oregon that drastically hurt their chances for the Pac-12 North title and the Wildcats fell short on Saturday against the No. 23 Utes a week after winning their first game over a depleted California team.
This will be the first meeting of the Pac-12’s cats in three years. The two had been trading home games annually from 2013-2018 with WSU winning four of the six meetings between then.
WSU was on the cusp of ending their season with a bowl appearance for the first time in a decade heading into their week 11 game at Tucson in 2013. The Cougs needed to go at least 2-1 the rest of the way with their schedule not being so favorable. On the road against a 6-3 Arizona team, at home against 3-5 Utah, then the Apple Cup in Seattle. If they were going to make a bowl game, they had to pull off at least one road upset. Connor Halliday would take advantage of a missed go-ahead field goal by the Wildcats and lead a touchdown drive to give the Cougs the lead with 2:15 to go. Arizona would drive down the field and get one last shot at the end zone from the 13 yard line with three seconds to go. Arizona’s receiver would make the catch but well out of bounds as the clock read triple zeros to give WSU a huge upset win that would later lead to their first bowl appearance under Mike Leach.
A top 15 Arizona team would boat race WSU the following year in Pullman 59-37 but WSU would respond right back with another win in the desert, using a nearly six minute touchdown drive, up by three, to put the game out of reach at a 10 point lead. Arizona would add a touchdown late to make the score closer at a final score of 45-42 WSU.
The Cougs would finally snap the back-and-forth wins by putting together a nice game in Pullman as they put up 38 in the first half alone in route to a nice blowout of the Wildcats, 69-7. In 2017, WSU tried to do what Arizona did three years prior and get a road win as a top 15 team. They didn’t. Despite WSU’s whopping 602 passing yards on 84 attempts, Arizona ran for 310 yards for a 58-37 Wildcat win.
In their latest meeting, it was all WSU again. 55 points at half and another two touchdowns in the 4th quarter gave No. 8 WSU another nice win at 69-28 to put them at 10-1, their first double digit win season since 2013.
The 2021 Arizona Wildcats
It’s not been a fun year if you’re a Wildcat fan. Arizona was projected to finish dead-last in the conference by just about anybody you talked to. There were even questions if Arizona would win a game outside of their game against inferior FCS Northern Arizona who currently sits at 4-6, eighth in the Big Sky Conference. The question then quickly turned to would Arizona win any game at all after they were upset by NAU 21-19. Until week 10.
The Cal Golden Bears began to have a COVID outbreak in their football program that resulted in seven starters and 24 total players having to miss the Arizona game including starting quarterback Chase Garbers. If there was anytime to snap the longest losing streak in the nation, this was it.
Arizona wouldn’t break the offensive stalemate until a little under six minutes left in the third quarter with a field goal. The offensive floodgates would open right up when Cal responded with a field goal of its own before quickly closing again. An Arizona interception would give Cal the ball in field goal range before an unsportsmanlike conduct would take them out of it. Five punts later, Arizona got the ball with 4:49 to go in the game. Sophomore running back Michael Wiley would punch it in from 10 yards out with 2:17 to go to give the Wildcats the lead. Arizona would force a three and out and snap the 30-game losing streak to give the Arizona Wildcats their first win since October 5th 2019, a total of 773 days, 10-3.
Meet the Wildcats
Five different Wildcats have attempted a pass this year. One of them was wide receiver Jamarye Joiner and he’s thrown nine attempts, two for touchdowns. Former WSU QB Gunner Cruz is one of the five but an injury to his thumb has him joining former starting QB Jordan McCloud with season ending injuries. This leaves UA down to just one scholarship QB, Will Plummer. Plummer has 1,087 yards, completing it a 55.8% clip with three touchdowns and seven interceptions. Plummer can and will run however, leading the Wildcats in rushing yards their previous two games.
While Drake Anderson leads the team in total rushing yards, the Cats have moved to a running game by committee as of late. Against Cal, Arizona had nine different players record a rushing attempt. They have also nine players with double-digit carries on the year. Michael Wiley carried the ball the most last week against Utah with 12 carries for just 37 yards.
Expect a healthy dose of Stanley Berryhill III for Arizona. He leads the team in receptions by far with 68. The next closest is BJ Casteel with 29. Beryhill also has 19 rushes for 121 yards. Despite all the touches for Mr. Berryhill, he has only hit paydirt once and that was week two against San Diego State.
For how bad Arizona has been on the offensive end, the Wildcats pass defense has been a bright spot. They rank second in the Pac-12 and 21st in the nation in passing yards allowed per game with 193.6. Their run defense isn’t too great however at 8th in the Pac-12 with 173.7 rushing yards allowed per game. They’re one of the worst teams in the nation at creating takeaways. At 128th of 130 teams, Arizona has only created six total takeaways, four of them being interceptions, the two other being fumbles.
ESPN’s Power Football Index is overwhelmingly confident in the Cougs at 85.2% chance of winning and the spread at -14.5.
Keys to Success
This is a game WSU should win rather easily. However, Arizona’s pass defense may give WSU some fits early on in the game. Talented receivers and a stout offensive line should be able to overwhelm the Arizona pass defense as the game goes on. The running game should be able to find some easy running lanes too. Having Liam Ryan not on an island against a future top five draft pick this week should be helpful to the offense having time to throw the football.
Defensively, it’s as simple as WSU creates takeaways and Arizona turns the ball over. Both at high rates. WSU has struggled to contain QB’s when they take off and will have to do a better job of that this week. Anthony Brown Jr. ran all over this WSU defense last week on designed read options and QB keepers. Arizona and Plummer will look to take advantage of that and it’s up to the WSU defensive line and linebackers to contain him.
I’ve discussed it many times before now that this group of upperclassmen have been through it all here at Washington State. They’ve had multiple highs on the field and too many lows off the field. Since they arrived in 2017, the Cougars have enjoyed three bowl games, winning one, their first 10+ win season in over 15 years, multiple upsets and even College Gameday coming to Pullman in what some call the greatest weekend in Pullman history.
Yet they’ve also had to go through the lowest moments a football program can experience. The tragic deaths of teammates Tyler Hilinski and Bryce Beekman in 2018 and 2020. Their head coach leaving the program unexpectedly and having to go through a complete regime and culture change. Having to navigate through a pandemic that left everybody wondering if they’d even have a season. Going from playing in front of 33,000+ to zero fans. Last minute game cancellations. Their head coach being fired after months of scrutiny and controversy.
Now they have arrived to a day that LB Jahad Woods said he’d never thought would come. Their final game in Pullman. WSU will reportedly be honoring 14 upperclassmen on Friday that will be leaving the program.
There are other grad students and seniors that aren’t being honored which could indicate that some of these players may return to Pullman. Notable names include Armani Marsh, Derrick Langford, Brian Green and others.
Bottom Line: To The Seniors
To this group of players leaving the program, thank you. You have delivered some of the greatest moments in program history and have helped build this program into where it is today. The Jahad Woods strip sack against No. 5 USC in 2017, Max Borghi’s game winning touchdown against Oregon State in 2019, Calvin Jackson Jr.’s Sportscenter play of the day against Cal earlier this year and so many more.
Not only did this group play in some of the most unforgettable games in WSU history, but they also stuck through in the darkest times in WSU history. They battled through all the possible adversity a football program can go through. The upperclassmen deserve the world for not only what they’ve had to endure, but how they responded each and everytime they were knocked down. They are the most resilient group of upperclassmen we have seen come through Pullman. I truly couldn’t imagine where this program would be right now if it weren’t for this groups dedication and resilience. I can’t thank these guys enough for everything they’ve done.
The Light at the end of the Tunnel
Washington State still has a chance to be rewarded for their efforts with another bowl appearance if they can take care of business and win at least one of the last two games. A win on Senior Night would be special, but the latter of the two would be an even sweeter win. A chance to finally knock off that in-state rival that has been taunting you for your entire collegiate career would be an oh so sweet way to finish out the regular season.
There are a plethora of great bowl games that await WSU in some fun (and warm) locations. Hawaii, San Diego, Las Vegas, Texas…..dare I say California for New Years Day?
I’m still wishing for this group to be able to somehow find themselves playing in Las Vegas in two weeks for a Pac-12 Championship with a chance to be smelling roses in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. In order for this to happen, WSU will have to win out, Oregon will have to lose to Utah on Saturday and Oregon State will have to beat Arizona State and their in-state rival Oregon. It’s a long shot but this season has already been weird enough, let’s get even weirder. For all that this group of players and coaches have endured, it would be a very sweet reward for the ball to finally bounce their way.
Realistically, I know that’s asking for a lot and the odds are far from the Cougars favor. I will be ecstatic with whatever postseason bowl game the Cougars end up in. But, were still playing with house money. Why not dare to dream and push our chips all in? Like the old saying goes, aim for the roses and even if we miss, Coug fans can drink the plane to Las Vegas dry again. Or something like that. Regardless, that sounds like a win-win to me.
I also wish for a packed and energized Gesa Field to show these seniors the recognition and appreciation they have battled on and off the field for. These guys deserve this. While I understand that the dream may not be feasible with Thanksgiving break starting this weekend for students, if you can stay or come to Pullman, please do and bring the energy. Dress warm too.
Once final kickoff for the 2021 season at Gesa Field is set for 6 p.m. Friday in what should be cold and wet conditions that could even result in some snow on the field.