• UCLA travels to Pullman, Washington, to take on the Washington State Cougars Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN2, with Adam Amin and Tom Luginbill in the booth and Shelley Smith on the sidelines.
• Washington State is 2-7 overall and 0-6 in the conference.
• UCLA is 7-2 and in first place in the Pac-12 South with a conference record of 4-2.
• The Bruins, after their routing of Arizona, 66-10, jumped up in the polls, to #17 in the AP, #19 in USA Today, and #18 in BCS.
• UCLA being listed in the BCS rankings is the first time since December, 2006.
• The Cougars have lost all of their conference games this season -- six in a row. WSU's two wins came at home against FCS Eastern Washington, and 2-8 UNLV.
• The series between the two schools began in 1928, with UCLA leading 39-18-1. UCLA has won the last four, but are 10-10 over the last 20 years against WSU. In that time, in games played in Pullman, UCLA is 2-2.
• Ranked UCLA teams are 12-4 against WSU in the last 40 years.
• UCLA pulled out a win last season in the Rose Bowl, 28-25, after being down in the fourth quarter 22-14. Johnathan Franklin set up a fourth-quarter touchdown with a 32-yard run.
• Washington State Head Coach Mike Leach is in his first year in Pullman. Leach is, of course, known for being the head coach at Texas Tech from 2000 to 2009, where he compiled a 84-43 record, his best season coming in 2008 when he guided the Red Raiders to an 11-2 record and a #12 ranking in AP. Leach is known for his pass-happy spread offense, the "Air Raid," which he developed at Valdosta State and Kentucky as an offensive coordinator, and then made famous at Oklahoma as an OC before being hired at Texas Tech. Leach was fired at Texas Tech after the controversy surrounding his handling of a disciplinary situation with Texas Tech player, Adam James. He was then hired by Washington State after the 2011 season, and was hailed by the Cougar faithful as the savior of the long-struggling football program. Last week, more controversy. After WSU was smacked down by Utah, 49-6, Leach publicly called out his players, calling them zombies and "exhumed corpses," and saying the Cougar's offensive line "borders on cowardice." Some are hailing it as tough love, while others consider it inappropriate to do in a public forum.
• On Sunday, Washington State's star wide receiver Marquess Wilson walked out early of a team conditioning drill. Leach subsquently suspended him for one week, missing the UCLA game. There are rumors that Wilson won't return. Wilson, who is probably the team's best player, has been the target of many of Leach's criticisms this season, and was recently demoted to second string despite leading the team in receptions.
• A Washington State players-only meeting was planned for sometime this week to try to re-group after the losing streak and recent controversy.
• Washington State has some dubious stats. The Cougars are last in the country in sacks allowed (4.44/game). They are last in rushing offense, gaining just 29 yards per game. They are 112th in the country (out of 120) in scoring offense, averaging just 19 points per game.
• UCLA has won 11 of its last 12 games when it limits its opponents to less than 100 rushing yards.
• Much has been made of this potentially being a "trap game" for UCLA, a match-up against a poor opponent it should dominate, sandwiched between a big win over Arizona and the classic rivalry against USC.
• The weather in Pullman is forecast to be in the low 20s at game time Saturday.
Washington State's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense
Hoo boy, it's been quite the week for Washington State. After holding their own at Stanford two weeks ago, the Cougars put forth a dismal effort against Utah last Saturday, losing 49-6 in a game that really wasn't that close. Then, after losing that game, head coach Mike Leach, known for his interesting press conferences, launched into a soliloquy on his team playing like "zombies" and criticized the overall effort and commitment of his team. THEN, on Sunday,, wide receiver Marquess Wilson (6'4, 185), who ran afoul of Leach earlier in the year and was pulled from the starting lineup, left a workout after twenty minutes and has either quit the team or been indefinitely suspended, depending on whom you believe. To top it off, there have even been reports of an assistant coach and one or two players getting into an altercation at halftime of the Utah game.
To put it simply, this Cougars team may be in a mild state of flux.
Even outside of the wild drama of the past week, there has been the usual turmoil associated with a losing team, and turmoil that UCLA fans are probably familiar with. Leach has vacillated between quarterbacks Jeff Tuel (6'3, 221) and Conor Halliday (6'4, 189), with Tuel starting the first two games of the year, Halliday starting the next five, and then Tuel starting the last two. Halliday saw significant time in relief last week, but the expectation is that Tuel will once again start this weekend. Neither quarterback has lit the world on fire this year, but Tuel has been decidedly better than Halliday, connecting on 64% of his passes to go along with eight touchdowns against five interceptions. What's troubled the quarterbacks most has been absolutely awful offensive line play and no running game to speak of.
Along the offensive line, Washington State simply doesn't have a lot of talent, and are dealing with a new injury this week, as starting left tackle Gunnar Ecklund (6'7, 286) apparently broke his hand against Utah and may be out for this weekend's game. Ecklund, a redshirt freshman, was actually a walk on, which gives you an idea of the depth issues. In his absence, junior John Fullington (6'5, 300), who played left tackle last season, will slide over from left guard. Fullington is the one lineman with significant experience, and he actually was an honorable mention All-Pac-12 performer last year. With Fullington moving over, on-again, off-again right guard Jake Rodgers (6'6, 300) will move to left guard and his backup, Matt Goetz (6'4, 272) will slide in at right guard.
No matter who Washington State plugs in along the offensive line, however, the numbers speak for themselves: the Cougars have rushed for a total of 262 yards on the season, and have allowed 40 sacks, with ten coming against Stanford alone. In Pac-12 play, the rushing attack has managed just 13 yards per game, and in the last two games, Washington State has rushed for a total of -20 yards. So much of the blame for that falls on the offensive line, which has been abysmal this year dealing with any defensive front. As Leach put it in his post-game rant, occasionally Utah sent two pass rushers against his offensive line, and still managed to pressure Tuel.
|Wide Receiver Gabe Marks.|
Old UCLA friend Jim Mastro, who worked on improving the pistol at UCLA last year, has brought elements of the pistol up to Pullman this season, but it has yet to result in a credible rushing attack. So far, both Winston and Caldwell have also caught a few balls out of the back field per game, so that's something to keep an eye on.
On the receiver side of things, without Wilson, the Cougars are left without their most dynamic skill position threat, but there is some depth behind him, even if their effort has been called into question by Leach. Freshmen Gabe Marks (6'0, 167) and Brett Bartolone (5'10, 179) have provided a spark so far in their early careers, and without Wilson in the lineup, they are the two leading receivers on the team. With Leach's pass-happy attack, Washington State goes seven or eight deep in the receiving corps, but the Cougars have also suffered some injuries and attrition there. Isiah Myers (6'0, 176), who has been out the past two weeks, could potentially return this week, which gives Washington State another fairly speedy threat on the outside.
Even with the offensive line concerns, though, it's safe to say that the Cougars faithful were expecting more from the vaunted Mike Leach Air Raid offense, and right now, it's just a very bad offense. The Cougars are averaging just 19 points per game, which is good for 112th in the nation, and 353 yards, which is good for 99th. And it doesn't appear to be getting any better, as the Cougars offense is coming off arguably its worst game of the year against Utah.
UCLA's defense, on the other hand, is coming off its best game. The Bruins shut down Arizona's high-flying offense this past week by bodying up the Wildcats' larger receivers and generating an effective pass rush while only rushing four. Linebacker Anthony Barr, who has been an unexpected force all season for the Bruins, once again was completely disruptive against Arizona, frequently forcing running backs to cut behind the line of scrimmage and forcing Matt Scott into tough throws.
Additionally, the Bruins made a few adjustments against the spread this past week, moving Andrew Abbott closer to the line of scrimmage and generally lining him up against the slot receiver. Jordan Zumwalt, who had been playing inside linebacker, played almost no reps there, and instead split time with Damien Holmes at the other outside linebacker spot. In his place, Dalton Hilliard and Stan McKay took the majority of the reps at a hybrid safety/inside linebacker spot, as the Bruins spent most of the game in nickel.
The defensive line has been the story of the season so far, and much of the credit must go to defensive ends Cassius Marsh and Datone Jones, who have managed the transition to the 3-4 fairly well. Both have managed to turn the position into a fairly dynamic one, as both have continued to make plays in the back field, despite mostly being needed as gap-fillers in this defense.
The secondary has been a bit embattled thus far in the early season, but this last game saw Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester finally find a matchup that worked for them: bigger, slower receivers. Price and Hester were able to body up Arizona's receivers at the line, which disrupted Scott's timing and helped keep Arizona's attack fairly stifled all night.
Washington State has a really bad offense, and even though there's some speedy talent at receiver that could pose matchup problems for UCLA's cornerbacks, the Cougars' offensive line is so bad that UCLA should be able to do what it's done for the last few weeks: mostly drop more guys into coverage and rush three or four the entire game. If the Bruins can get consistent pressure with just four, as we expect, then that should be more than enough to stifle the Cougars' offense. Anthony Barr could have a very impressive statistical game on Saturday.
The Cougars don't have a rushing offense to speak of, so they'll need to rely on a receiving corps that just lost its most dynamic playmaker. Combine that with the quarterback woes over the past few weeks, and an offensive line that has been cobbled together with chewing gum and baling wire, and you're hard pressed to find a way that the Cougars take this matchup.
UCLA's Offense vs. Washington State's Defense
This might sound weird, considering the Cougars' defense has given up 31 points and over 430 yards per game, but their defense isn't that bad. Like UCLA, the Cougars have an attacking, 3-4 defense that tends to give up yardage, but has also created a fair amount of turnovers and sacks this year, which helps to offset some of the big plays. They've also been put into some tough spots by an offense that has turned the ball over 21 times this season and given up 40 sacks.
The Cougars have intercepted 12 passes this year, which is good for a tie for 17th place nationally (right there with UCLA), and have 24 sacks on the year, which puts them in a tie for 20th nationally. Much like UCLA, at least early on in the season, they like to force the issue in the back field, which has led to giving up some big plays.
A reason for the gambling on defense is that Washington State isn't particularly stout up the middle. The Cougars have given up an average of 204 yards on the ground in Pac-12 play and nearly five yards per carry.
So their defense isn't great, but it's just not quite as awful as the initial numbers would make it look.
The Cougars are led by linebacker Travis Long (6'4, 245), who has made his reputation as one of those players with a tremendous work ethic and was an All Pac-12 second team performer last season. This year, playing kind of that Anthony Barr role in the Cougars' defense, he leads the team in sacks, with 7.5, as well as tackles for a loss, with 10. He most often will end up as the fourth rusher in the 3-4, but he'll occasionally drop back into coverage to mix things up. He's not great in coverage, but still has managed an interception this year. Redshirt freshman Darryl Monroe (6'1, 228) mans the Mike linebacker spot for the Cougars, and has started all nine games. He has struggled some in picking up the defense this year, and has found himself out of position at times, but he leads the linebackers in tackles, and is behind only Long in sacks, with three. Cyrus Coen (6'0, 215) will line up on the strong side, and has shown some ability to be disruptive this year, using his quickness to get into the back field. Junior Justin Sagote (6'0, 220) is the weakside linebacker, and is the fourth leading tackler on the team. As a general statement, the linebackers struggle as a whole with tackling, which has been a significant issue with their run defense this year.
|Linebacker Travis Long.|
In the secondary, the star is safety Deone Bucannon (6'1, 192), who has had to shore up many of the issues up front with the run. Bucannon splits him time between playing further up in the box and playing coverage, depending on the matchup, and actually leads the team in tackles and interceptions. At cornerback, the situation is a little murkier. Anthony Carpenter (6'0, 190) will likely get the nod over Damante Horton (5'10, 175) at one corner spot, which is surprising because Carpenter started the year at safety and Horton, actually, was one of the bright spots for Washington State last year. Neither has been great, although Carpenter has shown some better ball skills. At the other cornerback slot, senior Daniel Simmons (5'10, 184) will start after taking over for Nolan Washington (5'11, 182) after the first four games of the year.
All in all, it's not a strong defensive unit, and it's in a precarious position based off attrition over the summer. Leach has, with the loss of Wilson, seen 18 players leave the program since he started in the spring. It hasn't left a lot of depth, offensively or defensively, and what's left hasn't been able to adjust to the new defensive scheme particularly well.
UCLA's offense has been the strength of the team this year and, after a brief lull at the start of Pac-12 play, has begun to operate at a very high level again over the last two games. That rebirth has coincided with significantly improved play from redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley, who has turned himself into a veritable star in his first year as the starter. Hundley has 21 touchdowns on the season to go along with eight interceptions, but has been magnificent over the last two games. After suffering an ankle injury in the second game of the year, Hundley finally seemed to get his wheels back two weeks ago, and the added mobility and stronger base has made him a much more dynamic threat. He's also shown improved touch on his passes, making two deep touchdown passes to Jordan Payton and Joseph Fauria against Arizona last Saturday.
Equaling Hundley in his feats of strength is running back Johnathan Franklin, who broke the UCLA all-time rushing record against Arizona. Franklin, who has progressed each year at UCLA, has effectively exploded this season, garnering legitimate Heisman talk at the beginning of the year and now looking like a legitimate contender for All Pac-12 honors. Franklin has shown improved balance and open field decision making, to go along with sudden sure-handedness. If he keeps this up, he could potentially break UCLA's single season rushing record as well, which stands just 389 yards away. UCLA has also gotten solid contributions from Jordon James and Damien Thigpen in relief of Franklin. James, in particular, broke out a bit last week, showing off some nice North-South running against Arizona.
The receivers, who struggled to create separation from defenders in the absence of Devin Lucien and Darius Bell, finally came untracked last week against Arizona. Jerry Johnson, who's been a no-show this season after looking sensational in spring and fall, finally had a couple of big plays against the Wildcats. Fauria caught a couple of touchdown passes, and appears to be finding a groove in this offensive scheme, playing primarily a receiving role. Shaquelle Evans has been the steady contributor, leading the team in receiving. With Bell likely back this week, and Lucien back possibly as soon as next week, the receiving corps could be getting healthy at the right time.
The main issue UCLA will have to contend with defensively is Washington State's pass rush. Long is extremely disruptive in the back field, and should pose some difficulties for UCLA's freshman tackles. Outside of Long, though, there, again, isn't much talent on this Wazzu team, and it is the case that the players are still getting acclimated to the new scheme.
The second big issues that UCLA will have to contend with is the weather. With temperatures in the 20's at game time, and possibilities of rain or snow, the pass game might not be in a position to succeed. Odds are, UCLA will spend most of the game on the ground, which, unfortunately, doesn't turn this into a game that favors Washington State any better.
The Bruins should be able to run effectively on Washington State, and unless the Cougars are able to force quite a few turnovers, this is a bit of a mismatch.
Washington State's special teams are actually a strength for the Cougars. At place kicker, the Cougars have Andrew Furney, who has incredibly deep range. Against Eastern Washington this year, he hit a 60 yard field goal at the end of the half, and his only misses have come from 40+ yards. He's 18 of 19 on extra points this year.
Michael Bowlin is the punter, and he's been decent this year, with a 43 yard average to go along with just three touchbacks. Bowlin is also the kickoff specialist, where he doesn't have the strongest leg in the world, and has only had 14 touchbacks on 34 kickoffs this year.
Caldwell is the primary kickoff return man, and he's actually been one of the best in the country this year. The Cougars' kickoff return team in general ranks 33rd in the nation with a 24 yard average. Caldwell's long this year is a 92 yard return that—somehow—did not go for a touchdown.
Teams don't often punt to the Cougars, but when they do, Leon Brooks has been the primary guy. He's caught seven punts this year for 74 yards.
UCLA's special teams have been a bit more of an adventure. While punter and kickoff specialist Jeff Locke has been a steady, high level contributor, the rest of the unit has struggled at times this year.
Steven Manfro was demoted from his position as punt returner last week, and in his stead, safety Randall Goforth got the nod and had two impressive returns. At this point, it's between he and Shaquelle Evans for the spot.
At place kicker, Ka'imi Fairbairn had a very tumultuous start to the season, missing three extra points at the beginning of the season, and then having issues with field goals over 35 yards. The coaching staff has gotten better about managing his range, and he's seemingly gotten more comfortable, nailing a game winning field goal against Arizona State, and then going a perfect 9 for 9 on extra points against Arizona.
Damien Thigpen is the primary kick returner, and he's been good so far this year. With his explosiveness, there's still a sense that he could break a long one this year.
Advantage: Washington State
You could postulate that this is a classic trap game for UCLA, and in most years, you'd be right. UCLA has had a two week high of pulling out a tough victory over Arizona State and then crushing Arizona at home. With USC on the horizon one week from Saturday, a typical UCLA team would be looking past this Cougars squad and could potentially be ripe for an upset.
Also, if you were to go down that line of reasoning, you would also think that Washington State, after a crazy weekend, might take this opportunity to play an inspired game, and show some solidarity behind its coach.
Then, if you factor in the weather, which is going to be extremely cold and possibly wet, you might begin to really worry about this game.
However, our guess is that UCLA, for the first time in years, has enough to play for that they'll be focused enough to knock off Washington State. All the matchups point to the Bruins having the advantage, and, judging by what we've seen of the coaching staff this season, it's difficult to think that UCLA will be unprepared for this game.
In other words, we'll go out on a limb and say this isn't a typical UCLA team anymore, and the game this weekend could be further evidence of that.
Washington State 17