Arizona has competed well against top 10 teams in back-to-back weeks, with the Wildcats’ task not getting any easier in a matchup against No. 19 Washington State on Saturday at Pullman, Wash.
Arizona (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) lost to then-No. 7 Washington 31-24 at home on Sept. 30 before falling 43-41 in three overtimes at then-No. 9 Southern California on Saturday night. The Wildcats outgained the Trojans 506-351.
“When you watch how our team played, what our team did in that game, it was really a fantastic football game with a disappointing outcome,” said Arizona coach Jedd Fisch, whose team was about a three-touchdown underdog in each of the past two weeks.
In those games, the Wildcats limited Michael Penix Jr. and Caleb Williams — arguably the top two Heisman Trophy candidates at the midpoint of the season — to a combined one touchdown pass.
Arizona will face another prolific passer this week in Cameron Ward, who is sixth nationally in passing yards per game (317.2). He has thrown 14 touchdown passes with two interceptions for the Cougars (4-1, 1-1), who were dealt their first loss of the season Saturday in a 25-17 decision at UCLA.
Washington State rushed for only 12 yards on 19 attempts.
“Let’s be honest, we got humbled. It happens. Back to the work,” said Cougars coach Jake Dickert. “There’s a toughness aspect that our team needs to play with, and UCLA beat us in that realm. We’ve got to respond to that and get back to who we are.”
The identity of the Arizona quarterback figures to be a key storyline. Jayden de Laura has missed the past two games with an ankle injury, which has allowed redshirt freshman Noah Fifita the opportunity to impress. Fifita completed 25 of 35 passes for 303 yards, with five touchdowns (two in overtime) and one interception against USC. He has quickly become a fan favorite.
The health status of de Laura remains something of a mystery, but Fisch said Monday: “If he is 100 percent healthy, he will start on Saturday.”
That would set up a rematch against de Laura’s old team. While at Washington State, he was the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year in 2021, but he transferred to Arizona after the season when the Cougars added Ward from Incarnate Word.
When Washington State defeated host Arizona 31-20 last season, de Laura threw for 357 yards but was intercepted four times.
“My message to Jayden is always the same,” Fisch said. “When you play with poise, and when you play with confidence, you’re one of the best quarterbacks in the country. You’ve proven that.”
Washington State already has posted key home victories over then-No. 19 Wisconsin 31-22, and then-No. 14 Oregon State 38-35. Ward is spreading the ball to Josh Kelly (26 catches, 376 yards, five touchdowns), Lincoln Victor (24-337-3) and Kyle Williams (24-387-4), among others.
The Cougars are second nationally in passing (365.4 yards per game) but 117th in rushing (103.6).
Dickert called Arizona “the most improved team in the league.”
“The last two results against top 10 teams are no fluke,” Dickert said. “I think the challenge is real. I think they’re an explosive team. The best part is now this one’s back here at home.”