Washington State Game Preview

The struggling Washington State Cougars come into the Rose Bowl Saturday and, on paper, the Bruins look like they should dominate. But there are some intangibles, and other factors, that might make this more of a game than you might think...

FACTS AND FACTORS

-- UCLA hosts Washington State Saturday at 12:30 PST in the Rose Bowl, with the game being televised by FSN. Bill Macdonald and James Washington will be in the booth and Rebecca Haarlow on the sideline.

-- Washington State is 1-3 on the season, with its three losses coming against Oklahoma State (65-17), SMU (35-21) and last week USC (50-16). The Cougars did beat FCS (Division 1-AA) Montana State, 23-22.

-- The Cougars were, in fact, down by 15 points to start the fourth quarter against Montana State.

-- UCLA is 2-2, coming off the biggest win of the Rick Neuheisel era when it defeated then #7-ranked Texas in Austin, 34-13.

-- UCLA owns a 37-18-1 record in the series with the Cougars. While UCLA won last year's meeting in Pullman, 43-7, WSU has won three of the last four contests (2006, 2004 2002) played in the Rose Bowl. The last time the two teams met in Pasadena, in 2008, UCLA won 28-3.

-- In last year's win, Kevin Prince threw for 314 yards while completing 29 of 45. Akeem Ayers had two interceptions while Rahim Moore registered one.

-- Washington State is going through perhaps its worst era of football in 40 years. Its record in the last 2½ seasons is 4-25, and you have to go back to the late 1970s to find a time in their history that competes with that degree of failure. And among the four Cougar wins in the last 2½ years, two of them have been over Division 1-AA teams, and one was over Washington in 2008, a Husky team that went 0-12 that season. WSU's only legitimate win in this recent time span was last season against SMU, a team that went 8-5 in 2009.

-- During this period, WSU has been coached by Paul Wulff, the former Cougar who was previously the head coach at Eastern Washington. Even with the wins against the Division 1-AA teams, Wulff still has the lowest winning percentage (.148) of all Washington State head football coaches who have coached at least three games. He is, obviously, struggling to turn around a Wazzu program after, first, the departure of Mike Price at the end of the 2002 season, and then Bill Doba, who was fired in 2007. Price was at WSU for 14 years, and did the unimaginable job of making Washington State a very good football program, culminating in a 10-3 record, a Pac-10 championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl for the 2002 season. Price left for Alabama (and we all know how that ended), and WSU moved on to Price's defensive coordinator, Doba. Doba put in a good effort to keep the Price momentum going, in 2003 leading WSU to a 10-3 record. But Doba ran the program aground pretty quickly, and Wulff was given the unenviable task of re-building the Washington State program in 2008.

-- Washington State is a young, inexperienced football team, with 25 players making their college football debuts so far this season, which is about 40% of the WSU players who have seen time. That includes eight true freshmen and nine redshirt freshmen.

-- To make matters particularly worse for the Cougars, they lost a total of five players to injury who would have either started or been in their two-deep prior to or after the first game of the season. They also had to kick off one projected starter from the program last spring.

-- In 2009, Washington State, in national rankings, was: 119th in scoring, 118th in rushing, 110th in passing, and 119th in total offense. Defensively, they were 118th in scoring, 117th in rushing, 115th in passing, and dead last (120th) in total defense.

-- In 2009, WSU was out-scored by an average of 38.5-12.

-- UCLA has won 24 of its last 34 games at the Rose Bowl.

-- UCLA's 27 yards passing against Texas last week was the fewest in a game for the Bruins since it played Oregon State in 1978, when it had zero yards.

-- UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel is 2-0 against Paul Wulff, and 7-0 all-time as a head coach against Washington State.

-- In its entire history, UCLA has produced 34 consensus All-Americans (which gets it ranked 15th all-time in college football and second in the Pac-10). Comparatively, Washington State has only had five in its entire 117-year history of football. In just the last 10 seasons, which wasn't exactly a hey-day for UCLA football, the UCLA program has produced eight consensus All-Americans.

-- Former UCLA star receiver J.J. Stokes will serve as the honorary captain against Washington State Saturday.

While it's been blazing in Pasadena for the last several days (topping out at 110 degrees Monday), it's supposed to cool off some by Saturday, with the forecast calling for a high of 89 degrees.

WASHINGTON STATE OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

The Cougar offense has, actually, found a modicum of success that it can hang its hat on. After last season when it ranked among the worst teams in the country in both passing and rushing, this season the Washington State passing game has become respectable, ranked 40th in the country, gaining 239 yards per game.

A great deal of the credit has to go to Washington State sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel (6-3, 214). It was pretty clear last season that Tuel was the better option than Marshall Lobbestael, and Tuel won the job in fall. While the Cougars, of course, have generally been miserable so far this season, Tuel has shown some real talent, with some obvious physical gifts, and a knack for scrambling and finding the open receiver. He's fourth among Pac-10 quarterbacks in passing yardage, and he's gaining confidence every week. Last week against USC he went 24 for 37 for 222 yards, even though he threw three interceptions. Against Montana State three weeks ago, he engineered a fourth-quarter comeback in which the Cougars were down by 15 points and he threw for two touchdowns.

Before the three picks against USC he had thrown only one in his first three games.

Tuel also has been getting some help from a surprisingly good receivers group, led by junior Jared Karstetter (6-4, 208), who is a big, strong possession receiver that is tough to bring down. The real surprise has been true freshman Receiver Jared Karstetter.HREF=//ucla.scout.com/a.z?s=12&p=8&c=1&nid=5051026>Marquess Wilson (6-3, 173), who has done considerably better than most experts projected him to do as a prospect out of Tulare, Calif. Wilson leads the team with 20 receptions, and in yards (340). He's had four receptions for 40 or more yards so far this season, and he's had two 100+-yard games, being only the second freshman receiver in Washington State history to do so (Phillip Bobo did it three times in 1990). Wilson is a big target, and not lightning fast, but he's shown a knack for getting separation and then creating after the catch. WSU's third leading receiver, senior Jeffrey Solomon (60, 200), has been sidelined so far this week with a knee injury, but is expected to play.

What's pretty impressive is that the Washington State passing game has been doing decently without much pass protection or a running game. Tuel has pretty much been running for his life, having been sacked 13 times in four games. In other words, the WSU offensive line hasn't been doing a particularly great job, and that's pretty disappointing since it's probably the one unit on the team that hasn't been beset by injury, had a decent amount of experience and was expected to be one of the bright spots on the team. The line is led by Micah Hannam (6-4, 283), the senior right tackle, who has started every game since 2007. But as an indication of what state the OL is in, Hannam, with that kind of experience, is having his position challenged by true freshman John Fullington (6-5, 268).

The Washington rushing game has been particularly woeful, gaining just 89 yards per game and just 2.7 yards per carry. In the last two weeks against USC and SMU, two teams with solid rushing defenses, the Cougars averaged 66.5 yards per game, and just 2.4 yards per carry.

Senior running back James Montgomery (5-10, 210) leads the Cougars with 175 yards in four games (3.7 per carry), but he's been shut down the last two weeks, gaining a total of 27 yards on 16 carries. Montgomery came close to not only missing this season but also potentially having his leg amputated as a result of the Acute Compartment Syndrome he suffered last year, so he has to be thankful to just be on the field.

Junior Longwone Mitz (6-1, 230), who is more of a fullback-looking type, has gained the most yards rushing in the last two weeks, mostly because the WSU running backs have been getting swarmed by tacklers and his size is the most capable of holding up to it. They'll also try to pick up some yards by allowing Tuel to tuck-and-run.

In typical snake-bitten WSU style, they lost promising true freshman tailback Rickey Galvin to a broken arm on the first play of his college career in the first five minutes of the season opener.

UCLA's defense is coming off a very impressive performance against Texas, and they appear to be finding themselves after starting the season a bit shaky.

Much of it is due to the personnel issues being worked out on the front seven, with redshirt freshman Keenan Graham winning the weakside defensive end spot, and Nate Chandler moving from defensive end inside to defensive tackle. UCLA star Akeem Ayers, then, has played quite a bit at defensive end, and that front four – along with senior defensive tackle

Sean Westgate.
David Carter – has been formidable, able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and close holes rapidly with their quickness.

One of the best high school defensive end prospects in the country last year, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, got more reps with the first-string defense this week in practice, and it looks like he'll be the guy at the strongside defensive end spot when Ayers shifts to his linebacker position. Odighizuwa is raw, but a phenomenal athlete, with great quickness himself.

The other two starting linebackers besides Ayers – middle linebacker Patrick Larimore and weakside linebacker Sean Westgate – have been exceptional so far this season. It was expected that Larimore would be good, even if he was a new starter, but the stellar play of Sean Westgate has probably been the most pleasant surprise of the early season for the Bruin defense. It was uncertain if Westgate, who has been carrying the "too-small" label with him for his career, would be able to offset his lack of size, but he currently leads the team in tackles with 32, and has been all over the field, especially against Texas last week.

Probably one of the other particularly good developments on defense has been the play of sophomore cornerback Sheldon Price. After getting pushed around against Kansas State, Price has been very good in run support, showing some strength and leverage in playing off blocks to make tackles, while being very good in pass coverage.

UCLA has also been bolstered by its nickel package, specifically because it's been able to get some quicker, more athletic guys on the field to play the nickel spot – Dalton Hilliard and Andrew Abbott Hilliard continues to look like a potential star, with a great instinct for the ball.

Advantage: UCLA. Washington State's offense isn't great, and they're one-dimensional at that. So that gives UCLA's Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bullough quite a few options. You'd think that with how well UCLA's defense has done against the run in the last two games (allowing an average of 96 yards), that going against WSU's inherently poor running game he could then dedicate more bodies to putting pressure on Tuel. But, on the other hand, Bullough might very well wait to see if his swift front four can pressure Tuel on their own, and then be able to sit back in the nickel and wait for Tuel to be forced into errors. Either way, UCLA can't go wrong.

Washington State will be forced to test UCLA's rushing defense, just to make sure it can't run effectively, before it probably goes mostly to the air. Even though everyone knows that WSU will be looking to throw most of the game, Washington State's good receivers will still challenge UCLA's secondary.

And it's not even as if Washington State will have UCLA's defense at a little bit of a deficit because it runs a spread most of the time, since UCLA's defense, finally after many years, looks like they're more comfortable defending the spread this season than a pro-style offense. In fact, last week they used the Pistol quite a bit, which the UCLA's defense, you would think, might have some inside information on how to defend.

Really the biggest question here is whether UCLA's defense will be able to retain its focus with Washington State sandwiched between Texas and California. You'll be able to tell pretty easily early on if they don't tackle with the precision and discipline they did last week against the Longhorns.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. WASHINGTON STATE'S DEFENSE

If you're a Cougar fan you're looking for any positive anywhere you can find it.

So, here you go: In the 2009 season, Washington State's defense was ranked 120th, dead last, in the NCAA.

So far this season they've moved up three spots to 117th.

Yeah, that was facetious, because WSU's defense really hasn't improved in any perceptible way.

In fact, last week against USC they took a considerable step backward, looking like a high school team in their mis-tackles. It was so bad that Washington State has gone to mostly live drills this week in practice to improve their tackling.

Much of the problem with the defense has been the fact that they've lost quite a few players in the off-season, in fall camp and even after the first game of the season to injury. So, while they weren't a very talented group to begin with, they're even less talented now.

And less experienced. They have only four starters returning from last season's pretty bad defense, and start four freshmen and sophomores.

They did get one solid player back from injury this season, senior defensive end Kevin Kooyman (6-6, 262), who leads the team in tackles for loss (4.5) and sacks (2). He's teams up with sophomore defensive end Travis Long (6-4, 258) to make for a fairly good pair of ends.

Defensive tackle, though, has been a problematic spot. Toby Turpin, a guy they thought could be a starter, was kicked off the team in the spring for breaking team rules. WSU had a commitment from a promising JC defensive tackle, Al Lapuaho, but he didn't get past the the NCAA Clearinghouse. One of WSU's projected starters
Linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis.
was also Dan Spitz, but he was suspended for the first 9 games of the season by the NCAA for testing positive for a banned substance. When he returns the plan is for him to move to offensive line, but with the way the DTs have been playing, they might reconsider. Senior Bernard Wolfgramm (6-3, 285) and junior Brandon Rankin (6-5, 281) have been trying to hold down the middle of the line but have struggled.

Perhaps the best defensive player on the team is the weakside linebacker, junior Alex Hoffman-Ellis (6-1, 241), who has good quickness, but even he has struggled some this season so far, especially against USC last week. They were hoping that Louis Bland, perhaps the most talented linebacker on the team who was a starter last year but missed half the season with a knee injury, would return but he's redshirting this season. So, inexperienced junior Mike Ledgerwood (6-1, 231) stepped into the middle linebacker spot. It's been tough replacing perhaps the two best players on the defense last season, Andy Mattingly and Jason Stripling, who graduated.

The back four has been bolstered a bit by the play of sophomore free safety Tyree Toomer (5-11, 194), who leads the team in tackles (26). But it says a lot when the other safety, returning veteran Chima Nwachukwu (5-11, 200), who has started 37 straight games, might be replaced by true freshman Deone Bucannon (6-1, 186).

Washington State's two cornerbacks – sophomore Daniel Simmons (5-10, 187) and freshman Nolan Washington (5-11, 180) -- are young, inexperienced and not exactly big in stature, which isn't a great combination.

This was the week that UCLA's offense would get its passing game up to speed, but that now is in question with the uncertain status over quarterback Kevin Prince. The often-injured Prince has a banged up knee that Neuheisel says looks fine in an MRI and is structurally sound, but is swollen, needs to be drained and causes Prince some pain. The question is: If Prince is relatively healthy, do they play him Saturday to enable him to sharpen up the passing game, while risking injury, against lowly Washington State, or do they rest him and make sure he's completely healthy for Cal next week?

Richard Brehaut would step in if Prince can't go, but he hasn't looked good in practice this week. On the other hand, Brehaut didn't look great in fall camp and then had a very good performance in UCLA's fall scrimmage. Also, expect to see Darius Bell in on a few plays to try to take advantage of his dual-threat capability. The issue, though, is Bell hasn't looked much like a dual threat in practice recently, really struggling to throw the ball and even looking slow running the ball.

It's not hard to predict that UCLA is going to rely heavily on its running game, which is 20th in the nation, averaging 218 yards per game. If it was able to gain 264 yard against Texas, so you'd have to think it will be able to run practically at will against tackle-challenged Washington State.

Johnathan Franklin is developing into an elite running back, with his explosiveness and ability to gain yards after contact. Derrick Coleman looked about as good as he ever has last week against Texas, finally utilizing that size to break tackles. It will be interesting to see if Malcolm Jones gets more snaps this week to get him more confortable; he's looked tentative since fumbling the ball twice against Stanford.
Josh Smith.


The UCLA offensive line has been phenomenal so far this season, in opening up running room for its tailbacks. But it has struggled some in pass protection, which was very evident last week against Texas. UCLA, in fact, is second to last among Pac-10 offenses in sacks allowed (11). UCLA's inability to get its passing game on track has been just as much the fault of the OL not being able to get Prince enough time to throw as it's been the fault of Prince and the UCLA receivers.

If UCLA does choose to throw in this game, you'd have to think that the 6-5 Nelson Rosario would be able to exploit Wazzu's smaller, inexperience cornerbacks, so expect a few fades and off-shoulder throws to Rosario. It would be a good week to unleash Josh Smith, Ricky Marvray and even Randall Carroll. With Carroll being one of the fastest players in the country, isn't it time that UCLA attempted a long ball to him instead of Taylor Embree?

The F-backs are a little thinner this week, with senior Christian Ramirez being excused from the program for personal reasons. UCLA always intends to get freshman Anthony Barr and sophomore Morrell Presley more involved in the offense every week, but has yet to do so. The tight end has truly been the forgotten receiver position so far this season, even though Cory Harkey has been very good blocking.

Advantage: UCLA. Everyone in the building and watching on TV knows UCLA is going to run the ball. Washington State's coaches are feverishly trying to find a way this week to limit UCLA's running game. But it's probably a futile effort, since Texas also knew UCLA was going to run the football, specifically over the left side of its line, and with Texas-quality athletes it still couldn't stop the Bruins rushing game.

Expect Washington State to dedicate 8 or even 9 guys to the box to stop UCLA from running the ball the entire game. More than likely, UCLA will go to the air in a limited capacity just to take advantage of what Washington State is giving up, regardless of whether its Prince or Brehaut throwing the ball.

SPECIAL TEAMS

UCLA's special teams units are playing at a superior level. Not only are we talking about kicker Kai Forbath and punter Jeff Locke, but the return and coverage teams have, so far this season, been particulary good.

Forbath is now just 8 field goals away from setting the all-time UCLA record, which is currently held by John Lee. Fobath has 78 and Lee, who was at UCLA in 1982-85, has 85. The NCAA record is 87. We've heard, too, that Lee is coming in from Korea for the game.

We've been thinking every week that this would be the game Josh Smith breaks a kick-off return for a touchdown. He came close to busting that one against Texas last week. But this week is another good bet, even though Washington State might not be kicking off much, they have shown quite a bit of vulnerability in punt and kick-off coverage.

The Cougars do have one of the better punters in the country in Reid Forrest. Field goal kicker Nico Grasu did make a 56-yarder so far this year, so he has some range.

Advantage: UCLA

PREDICTION

The Washington State faithful started having visions of a sugar plum upset dance around in their brains last week when the Cougars actually played fairly decently against USC in the beginning of the game. The Cougs produced 230 first-half yards against USC, and drove the field and scored a touchdown on their opening drive. But by the second half, the talent differential starting taking its toll, and Washington State's defense didn't force USC's offense to punt one time.

But, for Washington State, when you don't have much to cling to over the last 2 ½ years, they feel the first-half against USC is something to build on.

And whether it truly is or not, the significance is what it does to the collective psyche of the Washington State team. After the first half against USC, the Cougars now entirely believe in themselves.

And that could cause a problem for UCLA, which is in a classic letdown situation, with this game sandwiched between the big, emotional upset over Texas, and a showdown of sorts with Cal in Berkeley next week.

UCLA in a way was fortunate it started the season 0-2, because Neuheisel and the coaching staff has a distinct feeling to remind the UCLA players about. If UCLA were, say, 4-0, they might be more susceptible to a ledown this week against WSU.

But even still, these are only college kids. And they very well might be feeling a bit too puffed up after the Texas win. They should know that Washington State is a team that will come into the Rose Bowl hungry and wanting to find their own "signature win" for their program.

That factor, and the status of Kevin Prince, will probably make this game closer than it should be. If Prince were healthy, UCLA might have really used the Washington State game to get its passing game up to speed, but even if Prince plays, it probably won't now take too many chances.

More than anything, though, the intangibles will probably just keep the UCLA score down, but probably won't do much for putting more points on the board for WSU. UCLA will almost certainly dominate possession of the ball with its running game, and limit Washington State's offensive chances.

But there are just too many things going against Washington State. First, they just aren't very talented, and they're extremely young and inexperienced, and not just among their starters, with eleven freshmen in their two-deep. They turn over the ball quite a bit and commit more than an average amount of penalties. Their punt and kick-off coverage teams aren't great, and you could easily see UCLA getting some points in special teams.

The game won't seem nearly as close as the score.

UCLA 33
Washington State 13




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