-- The Washington State Cougars come to town to take on UCLA at the Rose Bowl Saturday night at 7:30. The game will be televised by Fox Sports Net (Prime Ticket in Southern California), with Joel Meyers and Brian Baldinger in the booth.
-- Washington State is 3-1 overall, and 1-0 in the Pac-12 North. They beat FCS Idaho State (64-21) and UNLV (59-7), lost to San Diego State on the road (42-24), and last week beat Colorado in Boulder (31-27).
-- UCLA and Washington State have played each other 57 times since 1928, with UCLA leading the series, 38-18-1. Washington State is 9-22 on the road against the Bruins, including a 42-28 loss at the Rose Bowl last season. Since 2001, Washington State has won three of five at the Rose Bowl and six of 10 overall.
-- It's the first time since 2006 Washington State has had a winning record after its first four games of the season.
-- The win last week against Colorado is only WSU's second conference road win since 2007. It beat Oregon State last season on the road, and then Washington in 2007.
-- UCLA has started a season with a losing record after its first five games 5 times in the last 20 seasons, with two of those seasons coming under Rick Neuheisel. Terry Donahue had one of those seasons, and Bob Toledo two.
-- With its victory over Colorado last week, Washington State now has 500 wins in its program's history.
-- Paul Wulff is in his fourth season as the head coach at Washington State. Wulff, a graduate of WSU and former center, took over his alma mater coming from Eastern Washington, earning a rep as a wide-open offensive coach. Wulff, of course, has had a tough go of it so far at WSU, with a record of 5-32 in his first three seasons. The victory over Colorado last week is Wulff's third conference win at WSU.
-- In their last 7 games, dating back to last season, Washington State is 4-3 and UCLA is 2-5.
-- WSU has bowl aspirations, and would need to get to 6 wins to be bowl eligible. Looking at its schedule, the UCLA game is a big one in those terms, since WSU still has to face Stanford, Oregon, Cal and Arizona State.
-- It's also a huge game for Neuheisel and his program. If the magical number of victories for Neuheisel to save his job is 6 (probably derived from a statement earlier in the season by UCLA AD Dan Guerrero, one in which he said the minimum goal for the season was to be bowl eligible), beating the Cougars at home in the Rose Bowl is a must-win.
-- Washington State's three victories have come against three teams with losing records: Idaho State (2-3, and an FCS team), UNLV (1-3) and Colorado (1-4).
-- The combined record of UCLA's opponents is 15-7, and Washington State's is 7-11.
-- The game Saturday is a very good measuring stick to see how far each program has come in a year, since it's the only game on either UCLA's or WSU's schedule against the same opponent in the same venue as last season.
-- Washinton State's defensive line coach is UCLA's former coach, Toddy Howard, who spent the last five years in Westwood until he was let go after last season.
-- The weather forecast for Saturday at the Rose Bowl is mid-80s degrees as a high, and in the 60s during the game, with almost no chance of rain.
WASHINGTON STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
The adventure continues with UCLA's defense having to face another wide open spread offense.
Washington State has the #9-ranked offense in the country, averaging 518 yards per game, and the #4 passing offense, averaging 379 YPG.
Of course, you have to take it all with some grains of salt, since WSU's lofty offensive stats were built against some pretty poor defenses in its first three games.
Probably a good measuring stick is how WSU's offense did against the defenses of San Diego State and Colorado. Against the Aztecs, WSU's offense gained a total of 419 yards, 368 passing and 51 rushing. Last week against Colorado's defense, which is #2 in the Pac-12, the Cougars gained a total of 455 yards, 376 through the air and 79 yards rushing. Remember, UCLA's defense is 10th in the conference. So, you can pretty much assume Washington State's offense will be somewhere in that ballpark against UCLA.
But you have to take into consideration, too, that UCLA typically struggles against spreads. And Washington State will spread you out as much as anyone. Their base formation is four wides.
It all works if the quarterback is executing well, and Marshall Loebbestael (SR, 6-3, 215) has been. The fifth-year senior is having a great season so far, being 13th in the country in passing efficiency (168.34), completing 64% of his passes, with 13 touchdowns against only 3 interceptions. The improvement is dramatic; in his first three seasons he completed only 49% and had more interceptions than touchdowns. It's a matter of Washington State's offense just generally being better and more talented the fourth year into Wulff's offense, but it's also Loebbestael having far more command of the offense, making good check downs and making much better decisions.
What's interesting is that Loebbestael is WSU's second-string quarterback. He's stepped in and done very well white the more talented starter Jeff Tuel (JR, 6-3, 214) has been out since the first game of the season with a fractured clavicle. He was cleared to play this week, but has been limited in practice, not looking 100%, and WSU announced Loebbestael will be the starter Saturday.
Loebbestael has been so good this season due significantly to the targets he has at his disposal.
|Receiver Marquess Wilson.|
But it doesn't end with Karstetter and Wilson. Isiah Barton (SR, 6-1, 187) would probably be the featured receiver on the majority of other teams. Wilson and Barton have combined for 9 touchdown catches. Then there's also Bobby Ratliff (FR, 6-2, 194), a talented freshman that's actually seeing the ball thrown at him even though there are so many other targets. Ratliff, who is WSU's fourth receiver, has more catches (13) than anyone on UCLA's team but Nelson Rosario.
What has made Washington State's offense more potent this season is a decent running game. Carl Winston (JR, 5-8, 200) and Rickey Galvin (FR, 5-8, 171) have made for a pretty effective duo, looking almost interchangeable. Winston is a bit bigger so he gets more of the workhorse carries, and Galvin is more of the homerun hitter, but both are small, scat-back types that are quick through a hole. The two of them are combining to average 6 yards per carry. There's also Logwone Mitz (SR, 6-1, 223), who they go to 3 or 4 times per game when they want a bigger back. Loebbestael will also throw to his backs out of the backfield.
Andrei Lintz (JR, 6-5, 252) is the Cougar tight end, but he rarely makes an appearance and rarely catches the ball.
What's particularly impressive is that the Cougars have had all of this success with just an average offensive line, in terms of talent, that often is left to themselves to provide pass protection when there are four wides in the pattern. The OL is led by guard B.J. Guerra (SR, 6-3, 321), an experienced veteran, but another veteran, right tackle Wade Jacobson (SR, 6-6, 306), is nursing a sore back, and his replacement inexperienced Dan Spitz (JR, 6-7, 300). Andrew Roxas (SR, 6-2, 293) is the first-string center, but he's still nursing an injury so Matt Goetz (SO, 6-4, 270), who was the second choice as a back-up to Roxas, will probably start again like he did last week against Colorado.
UCLA's defense is under-manned due to injury, missing its best cover corner, Sheldon Price, and its first-string nickel back, Alex Mascarenas. The former walk-on, Andrew Abbott, steps in for Price, and even though he does have that label of a "former walk-on," Abbott has proven that he's worthy of a scholarship, being solid in coverage and one of UCLA's best open-field tacklers.
UCLA will probably be in a nickel for most of the game, so you'll probably only see two linebackers on the field at the same time. Middle linebacker Patrick Larimore is rounding into form, and the younger guys, Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks, have been seeing the field more, and probably will continue to do so this week in place of Sean Westgate, who has an injured right hand and a club for a cast on it, which would considerably hinder his play-making ability.
UCLA's front four have struggled this season, in both containing the run and mounting a pass rush. UCLA has only 3 sacks on the season, and is allowing 187 yard per game on the ground, which is 11th in the conference and 96th in the country.
We hate to be so blunt, but the DL might be better this week since defensive tackle Justin Edison is out with a concussion. His replacements at nose tackle, Donovan Carter and Sealii Epenesa, have been far better in being able to hold their block and plug the middle.
ADVANTAGE: Washington State
No matter that WSU's offensive stats are inflated, they still present a huge problem for UCLA's struggling defense. They spread the field and play hurry-up, two things that are like Kryptonite to UCLA's defense in recent years. They try to counter any pass rush, since they use mostly a five-man pass pro, by Loebbestael getting the ball off quickly; with four receivers and one running back out in the pass pattern someone has to be open. They like to throw short and underneath, or find the soft spots along the sideline against a zone – all things that UCLA has been bad at defending so far this season.
WSU will not only spread you out, but show a few different looks, including a Power Pistol, when the tailback lines up behind the quarterback, and two fullbacks line up on both sides of the quarterback.
UCLA has been notorious for starting games in a hole – and Washington State has been particularly good coming out at the beginning of each game and putting up points this season. Against Idaho State, it scored in its first 4 possessions; against UNLV, on its firsts five possessions; against SDSU on three of its first four, and against Colorado on three of its first four. They take advantage of the opposing defense just not being completely prepared for their spread and having to make adjustments.
Against San Diego State, Wilson caught an 80-yard bomb on WSU's first play from scrimmage.
Last week, Colorado's defense was effective when it sent pressure on Loebbestael, taking advantage of WSU commonly only using its five OLs for pass protection. But then again, Colorado leads the conference in sacks, and UCLA is dead last. We've, of course, heard that the UCLA defensive game plan is to utilize more than just a four-man rush this week, but we'll believe it when we see it. We think UCLA won't ultimately be aggressive enough, not mount a pass rush against Loebbestael, and he'll pick apart UCLA's pass defense. And Wilson has to be good for at least one big play during the course of the game. On top of all this, UCLA's struggling rush defense will probably give way to at least a complementary running game for the Cougars.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. WASHINGTON STATE'S DEFENSE
Again, Washington State has built some respectable defensive stats playing against some weak teams so far this season. They are 6th in the conference in total defense (361 YPG) and fifth against the pass (234 YPG).
|Linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis.|
They're probably not this good, but they're quite a bit better than the Washington State defenses we've seen in the last few years.
The Cougars have some guys who have a legitimate shot at making All-Conference at the end of the season.
Defensive end Travis Long (JR, 6-4, 256) actually has made honorable mention all-conference the last two years. Last season, with an injured shoulder he had 9 sacks, and while he only has 1.5 so far this year, he's still a force.
But after Long, the WSU defensive line is suspect. The other DE starter is Adam Coerper, but he's out with a knee injury. Last recruiting season Washington State went out and signed a bunch of JUCO defensive ends, and one of them, Lenard Williams (JR, 6-2, 250), has stepped in, but WSU is a bit disappointed the JUCO DEs haven't had a bigger impact. Inside, at defensive tackle, is WSU's primary defensive weakness. Like UCLA, the DTs have been getting pushed around, which causes huge holes in the middle. WSU has high hopes for Kalafitoni Pole (FR, 6-1, 290), but he's just a freshman and is injury prone. Anthony Laurenzi (JR, 6-3, 287) is another new starter but he's been dinged up a bit.
Washington State's linebacking crew, however, has been performing well. Weakside linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis (SR, 6-2, 231) was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after getting 12 tackles against Colorado. Middle linebacker C.J. Mizell (SO, 6-2, 227), who originally signed with Florida State, is probably the defense's most talented player, and strongside linebacker Sekope Kaufusi (SO, 6-4, 236) is young but showing great promise.
The secondary is young, but has experience, and has been solid so far this season. They're led by strong safety Deone Bucannon (SO, 6-1, 190), who is very physical, a ballhawk (two picks so far this season) and a future all-conference player. Free safety Tyree Toomer (JR, 6-11, 199) is a returning starter, as is cornerback Nolan Washington (SO, 5-11, 184).
UCLA's offense can do one thing well consistently, and that's run the ball. Last year against Washington State it gained a stupid 437 yards on the ground, and it needed every yard (Washington State was ahead, 28-20, midway through the third quarter, if you remember). There's no reason to believe UCLA will diverge from that game plan, and that's to hand the ball to Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman. Franklin hasn't carried the ball more than 16 times in a game this season, but he carried it 30 times last year against WSU, for 216 yards. Coleman had 15 carries last year, but broke some big runs and gained 185 total yards. Doing the math, the two of them carried the ball 45 times in last year's game, and you can probably expect about the same this year. This is also a great opportunity for Jordon James to get more touches on the ball.
You can also expect quarterback Richard Brehaut to get some yardage running the ball out of the zone read. And don't expect him to throw the ball more than 20-ish times, probably in much the same way they did last week against Stanford, short to Nelson Rosario. The UCLA brain trust keeps saying they're going to get the ball in the hands of Shaquelle Evans, Randall Carroll, Josh Smith and Ricky Marvray, but if they're throwing just 20 times a game and 12 or so of those attempts are to Rosario on 7-yard dig routes that's not a great amount of chances for the other guys.
Washington State is going to stack the box and run blitz quite a bit, trying to limit UCLA's running game. Heck, if they would have kept the Bruins to about 250 yards on the ground last year the Cougars probably would have won the game.
If WSU does do that, of course, the best counter for UCLA would be to throw the ball -- even just with quick drops out into the flat to its playmakers that haven't had much chance to make plays. You'd have to think UCLA has learned its lesson with Joseph Fauria and will continue to look to him throughout the game. If UCLA is within 20 yards of WSU's goal line the Bruins will almost assuredly go up top to Fauria in the back of the endzone.
But it wouldn't be surprising at all if Fauria doesn't get the ball thrown to him much and UCLA keeps trying to pound the ball against WSU's stacked box.
An interesting factor could also be UCLA's ex-defensive line coach, Todd Howard, now WSU's DL coach. You'd have to think he knows every weakness of UCLA's leaky line and Pistol.
It's a made-for-the-movies story. The university's football team has lost its placekicker due to an injury, so the football coaches recruit the soccer team's manager, and he comes in and kicks the winning field goal in the big game.
This is a very plausible scenario for UCLA, with Tyler Gonzalez, the UCLA soccer team's manager, after Jeff Locke missed a couple of extra points (UCLA has missed four on the year, which is uncanny) and looks shaky on field goals. Gonzalez got reps as the #1 field goal kicker in practice, and he's very accurate from 40 or so yards and in.
UCLA is auditioning for a first-string punt returner. The guy they conservatively have to field punts because he doesn't fumble them, Taylor Embree, has fumbled two so far this season. That's two of six he's fielded. So, we'll see if UCLA throws off its conservative shackles, at least on punt returns, and puts Shaquelle Evans or Jordon James back there to give the Bruins any kind of return threat.
Washington State lost a very good punter from last season, Reid Forrest, and his replacement, Daniel Wagner, hasn't been fantastic, averaging just 40.5 yards per punt, which isn't good when you have a defense that needs all the field-position advantage it can get. Field goal kicker Andrew Furney is perfect so far this season, and they haven't all been chip shots, making field goals from 51, 48 and 46 yards. WSU's punt and kick-off returns have been average, and it has looked vulnerable on coverage, allowing one touchdown on a kick-off return so far this season. WSU's Travis Long, it has to be noted, blocked a field goal last week against Colorado.
It should, at the very least, be an entertaining, high-scoring game. UCLA, of course, would like to keep it low-scoring and methodical, and eke out the win with its running game, but that's probably not going to happen.
We do have a few interesting factors at play here. UCLA likes to hold onto the ball and Washington State's hurry-up offense speeds through its offense, scores and gives the ball back.
Washington State is +1 in turnover margin, while UCLA is -2.
Washington State is the second-most penalized team in the Pac-12 and UCLA, believe it or not, is the third least.
So, you can see how this can play out. UCLA will do everything it can to make its running attack dominate the game and try to not give the ball back to the Cougars. But UCLA is bound to cough it up. It also is bound to break off a couple of big runs, like Coleman did last season, especially late in the game when the WSU defense is tired, and that will lead to UCLA scoring, which also leads to UCLA giving the ball back to Washington State. And UCLA's offense is bound to be facilitated by a few Washington State penalties.
In other words, UCLA isn't going to be able to hold onto the ball for long because it will probably score quite a bit. And Washington State's offense is probably going to cut through UCLA's defense, which will look like somewhat of a mess in its nickel and dime packages, especially since it could be losing three key personnel in its secondary.
So, UCLA would like to keep this game in the 20s, but it doesn't look likely.
This should be a game in which both teams have the momentum at different times, and heading into the fourth quarter neither team really has it and either team can win the game. And the pressure and atmosphere should be fairly pronounced, since both teams are in a must-win situation to make a bowl game, even if there will probably only be 40,000 at the Rose Bowl.
It really comes down to whether UCLA's running game or Washington State's passing game is responsible for more points. We'll say UCLA ultimately wins it, because its punishing running attack will be able to dominate the fatigued WSU defense in the last 10 minutes, but this game is truly a toss-up.
Washington State 41