Arizona Washington St Football

Washington State scored 55 first-half points in its rout of the Wildcats the last time Arizona traveled to the Palouse three years ago.

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They are saying all the right things — perhaps because most of them weren’t here when this particular predicament popped up in the past.

We’re talking about the game before The Game. The week before the Territorial Cup. A trap into which the Arizona Wildcats repeatedly have fallen.

Arizona has lost the game immediately preceding the season-ending Arizona State matchup five years in a row. Sometimes the Wildcats had something at stake; sometimes they didn’t. Every contest was a double-digit defeat.

Three of those games involved a trip to the Pacific Northwest, where it’s almost always cold and rainy in mid-November. Only one of them was remotely competitive (and still ended in a 20-point setback).

The 2021 Cats are facing that exact same challenge Friday. Arizona squares off against Washington State in Pullman.

The Wildcats (1-9, 1-6 Pac-12) have nothing tangible to play for. They were eliminated from the Pac-12 South race weeks ago. They can’t make it to a bowl game.

Given those variables — plus the travel, the weather, the short week and the fact that the game isn’t on an ESPN network or FS1 — it’s fair to wonder whether Arizona will show up. We don’t mean that in the literal sense, of course. The Wildcats will be there in body. But will their minds be elsewhere, especially if the game starts slipping away early?

“Each week we've done everything we can to be better than we were the week before,” first-year UA coach Jedd Fisch said. “That has been our message, our goal every single week. I don't imagine that ever changing.

“We try to play 12 one-game seasons. So we'll deal with Washington State up until Friday night at midnight or 11 o'clock, and then we'll focus in on the next week. I don't imagine it to be an issue.”

Past as precedent

The last time Arizona won the game preceding the Territorial Cup was 2015. The UA upset No. 10 Utah 37-30 in overtime. It was the Wildcats’ fourth consecutive victory in the penultimate game of the regular season under Rich Rodriguez.

Things changed for the worse the following season. Arizona faced Oregon State in Corvallis on Nov. 19. Both teams entered the game with 2-8 records. The Wildcats had lost seven in a row entering the contest. They left with an eight-game skid, and No. 8 wasn’t close: The Beavers blasted them 42-17. Arizona never held the lead and trailed by double figures throughout the second half.

The Wildcats were a better club in 2017. Behind quarterback Khalil Tate, they fashioned a 7-3 record heading into Game 11 at Oregon.

120620-spt-ua fb main-p19.jpg

Colorado erased a 13-0 deficit to beat UA in Tucson last year in the Wildcats' game the week before the ASU contest.

The Wildcats hung with the Ducks through three quarters, tailing 35-28 entering the fourth. Oregon outscored them 13-0 in the final period for a 48-28 win. Arizona was uncharacteristically undisciplined, committing eight penalties — tied for its third-highest total that season — for 94 yards.

The following season, the Wildcats’ first under Kevin Sumlin, they had a chance to clinch a bowl berth at Washington State. Arizona had won two in a row to put itself in that position. The Wildcats also had a bye before traveling to Pullman.

The Cougars were ranked eighth in the country, and it was a mismatch from the jump. WSU compiled an astounding 55 points in the first half en route to a 69-28 victory. It was the second straight time the Cougars had scored that many points against the Wildcats in Pullman.

The next two next-to-last games took place at Arizona Stadium. Arizona was outmatched against No. 7 Utah in 2019, falling 35-7 and getting outgained 517-196. The 2020 Wildcats led Colorado 13-0 before fading. The Buffaloes scored the final 24 points.

Different cast of Cats

Will the ’21 Cats be different? Asked specifically about past mid-November flops in the Pacific Northwest, defensive tackle Kyon Barrs offered this rebuke:

“I can't really speak on the past because I wasn't here. But I feel like we’re a more focused team. We know what we gotta do each week.”

Barrs is a third-year sophomore. His first season at Arizona was 2019.

Only four current Wildcats started the last time they visited WSU in ’18: offensive linemen Josh McCauley and Donovan Laie, tight end Bryce Wolma and defensive end Jalen Harris.

Every UA coach is in his first season in his current role. Nine of the 10 on-field coaches are in their first year with the program.

Offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll said he didn’t have enough background to know how much the looming Territorial Cup matchup impacted recent UA squads.

“So all we can really do is focus on this game,” Carroll said. “This poses enough problems.

“I'm sure somebody is going to think ahead and look ahead. Our task this week is to not let them do that. Pull them back, reel them in.”

Having won only one of their past 22 games, the Wildcats shouldn’t look past any opponent for any reason. But human nature is a powerful force, and it’s especially difficult to predict among 18- to 22-year-olds.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown said early in the week that he wouldn’t be able to tell if the team was off its game until “our first earnest practice.” But he didn’t anticipate any issues because there haven’t been any all season.

Even at its lowest moments — blowout losses to San Diego State and Colorado — Arizona continued to play with supreme effort. Brown expects nothing less Friday night.

“This is a credit to our players: They show up every week on the practice field ready to go,” Brown said.

“We haven't been there yet. So I can't give you an honest answer as to how that would look. But I'd be shocked if we're not ready to go.”

Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or mlev@tucson.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev 

This article originally ran on tucson.com.

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