Newly ranked Cougars plot to continue climb against Arizona
It took a six-game winning streak, but Washington State finally cracked the Top 25.
The Cougars, who rallied to win 35-31 at Oregon State last week, have won six in a row for the first time since the 2003 season and remain tied with unbeaten and fourth-ranked Washington atop the Pac-12 North.
No. 25 Washington State (6-2, 5-0) will look to keep its momentum going Saturday with a game against reeling Arizona (2-6, 0-5) in Pullman, Wash., starting at 4 p.m. ET. The Wildcats have lost five in a row for the first time since 2011.
“I think there are always some ups and downs,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said of his team's performance. “I think under the best of circumstances, anybody in the Pac-12 is very tough to play against. We're definitely searching for consistency.
“We've played way over our heads, and there are times when we definitely could have played better. Last week, we definitely could have played better in the first half.”
The Cougars trailed the Beavers 24-6 at halftime before winning, and they were taken to the limit in their two previous games — against UCLA (27-21 win) and ASU (37-32).
Leach says he likes the resiliency of his team, which, as usual is dangerous offensively. WSU averages 39.8 points per game and is third nationally with 372.6 passing yards per game. Junior quarterback Luke Falk ranks second with 365.8 passing yards per game.
He denied a report Monday that he would enter the NFL Draft after the season.
“I don't know where the sources are coming from at all. I haven't said anything,” Falk said.
“If I had to make a decision right now, I'm definitely staying. This has nothing to do with our season. This is just noise. … It's kind of frustrating that someone said (you said) something you didn't say. I really don't like dishonest people.”
Falk threw for 415 yards against Oregon State last week, his 10th career 400-yard game, and increased his career passing yards to 9,351, third-most in school history. Falk threw five touchdown passes, passing Jason Gesser for third in school history with 75 career touchdown passes.
Senior wide receiver Gabe Marks became Washington State's career leader with 33 touchdown receptions, the second-best mark in Pac-12 history. Marks and fellow senior receiver River Cracraft are the only teammates in league history to each have 200-plus catches at the same time.
Arizona, uncharacteristically, is looking for offense under coach Rich Rodriguez.
Quarterback health and rustiness have been issues in the past two games — combined with a lack of a running game — so the Wildcats have completed only 16 of 46 passes in that stretch.
Last week, quarterback Brandon Dawkins was coming back from a one-game absence from a concussion. He has missed parts of two games because of a rib injury before that. Erstwhile starter Anu Solomon did not look sharp Saturday, appearing briefly in two series and wearing a brace on his left knee after missing six games.
“There are some things in the passing game that looked like we were a little rusty; it looked like the quarterbacks missed some time in practice, which they had,” Rodriguez said. “We can play better overall at that position and I think we will going forward.”
The receiving corps doesn't have anyone who demands double-coverage, and attrition at running back has meant that Rodriguez has twice had to start converted receivers at running back in recent weeks. The latest was senior Samajie Grant, who rushed 19 times for 64 yards in a 34-10 loss to Stanford on Saturday night.
Those numbers would have looked better if he hadn't reversed field on a run and took a 24-yard loss.
“We thought he played well, because he is a competitive guy and a good football player, but he was still learning the position,” Rodriguez said. “As the game went along, Samajie got a little more comfortable with it.”
Rodriguez said Grant will stay at running back. Dawkins and Solomon were listed as co-starters on this week's depth chart.
Arizona is 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring (24.1 points per game) and figures to have a tough day if its running backs can't get going against the league's top rush defense. Washington State allows 113.9 rushing yards per game.
The Cougars won last year's meeting in Tucson, 45-42, but the Wildcats have won four consecutive games in Pullman.