No. 8 Wazzou, Arizona have title hopes on the line

The Sports Xchange

November 13, 2018 at 3:17 pm.

Washington State coach Mike Leach and Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin share a background together that dates to 1998 in Pullman, Wash., when they both attended a one-back offensive-formation seminar conducted by former Cougars coach Mike Price.

Arizona offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was also at the clinic as Auburn’s offensive coordinator at that time.

“I was a little bit more thrilled to meet Mike Price because he was the head coach and he had been to the Rose Bowl and everything,” Leach said with a smile during his weekly press conference Monday. “But I was delighted to meet Noel and Kevin as well.”

Leach was in his second season as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator and Sumlin was a receivers coach at Purdue. Sumlin began his coaching career in 1989 as a graduate assistant under Price at Washington State.

They will coach against each other as head coaches for the first time Saturday when Arizona (5-5, 4-3 Pac-12) travels to Pullman to face the eighth-ranked Cougars (9-1, 6-1).

“I know him very well and he’s a fantastic guy,” Leach said. “We do share a lot of the same philosophies. I think he does a good job. I always think he does.”

When the Cougars and Wildcats meet on Saturday night, postseason implications will be on the line, with Leach’s team going after the greatest goal of reaching the College Football Playoffs.

Washington State can clinch the Pac-12 North title this week with a win over Arizona and a loss by Washington against visiting Oregon State. Washington and Washington State play in the Apple Cup next week at Pullman, and if Washington beats Oregon State as expected, the winner of the Apple Cup will play in the Pac-12 championship game.

Arizona has an outside shot at the Pac-12 South title if the Wildcats beat Washington State and Arizona State to close the season and Utah loses at Colorado on Saturday.

The Wildcats are coming off a bye week heading into their game against Washington State.

“The focus this week has been the game this week and last week was the bye week,” Sumlin said. “… Really, I think we’re a better team when we’re focused on one thing at a time. I think the last three weeks we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”

He has preached to his team that it is in position for a Pac-12 South title when it did not seem possible with losses to division foes Utah, USC and UCLA before upsetting Oregon and outlasting Colorado in the last two games.

“That was our message last week … just remember seven weeks ago when people didn’t give you a chance,” Sumlin said. “Don’t let people talk you into what happened the last three weeks. Let’s get back and focus on who we are, and let’s not focus on these two games but let’s focus on this game because we’re playing a heck of a football team this weekend.”

Washington State has a 12-game winning streak at Martin Stadium. Forecasts call for frigid conditions with temperatures in the 30s.

Arizona faces a tall task against Cougars quarterback Gardner Minshew II, the nation’s leader in passing yards per game (385.2), and a Washington State attack that leads the nation in passing yards per game (392.3). The Wildcats rank 10th in the conference in total defense (417 yards per game) and ninth in pass defense (248.7 yards per game).

The Cougars’ defense will try to keep the ball away from Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate as much as possible. Last year, in a 58-37 loss to Arizona in Tucson, the Cougars allowed Tate to pass for 275 yards and run for 146. J.J. Taylor, who has 1,221 yards rushing this season, also ran for 153 yards against the Cougars last year.

Last week, in the 31-7 win at Colorado, the Cougars held onto the ball for 41:16, and the Buffaloes had it only for 18:14. Colorado was 2 of 11 in third-down conversions and Washington State had 94 plays against Colorado’s 54.

The Cougars lead the country with 20 scoring drives of 10 plays or more.

Against Colorado, they had eight offensive possessions that lasted seven players or longer.

“The sustained drives, I like that,” Leach said. “That suggests a level of consistency that we’re all kind of striving for, the ability that you did it once, now you did it three times in a row … if you can do it over 10 that’s pretty good and we have to do better than that.”