That ideal scenario, though, was completely dependent on luck.
UCLA flat out should have lost to the Cougars. No question. Washington State thoroughly out-played the Bruins. I'm certain the players know it, the coaches know it, every fan in the stadium (those 28,000 brave souls) and every fan watching it on TV knows it.
Washington State spotted UCLA at least 21 points (the blocked field goal for a touchdown, the fumbled kick-off converted for a touchdown, and the quarterback fumble for a touchdown).
Perhaps this is one of the biggest indications that the program might have turned the corner. Good programs get lucky and win games they shouldn't.
If you had no idea which team was ranked #18 in the country, and were plopped down into an ice-cold seat in Martin Stadium, you'd easily say that the team in the ugly uniforms was the ranked team, that just happened to shoot themselves in the foot. Washington State moved the ball seemingly at will, gaining a total of 524 yards to UCLA's 334. They had 30 first downs to UCLA's 18. Even though in many modern college football games time of possession isn't an indication of the team that's dominated the game, this time it was, and WSU possessed the ball for just about 36 minutes, compared to UCLA's 24.
UCLA was thoroughly dominated. There's no way to argue the other side of the equation unless you have the bluest of blue glasses on.
And here's the worry…
And I know this has crept into the minds of most Bruin fans…
What if the win against Arizona was a bit inflated by different factors and how good this UCLA team actually is – with its rankings and hype – is really about as good as the team we saw on the field in Pullman?
Perhaps that's a bit too extreme. But at least you have to entertain this idea: That there were factors that inflated the Arizona win, and while UCLA got caught in a trap game, in a horrible environment against Washington State and they're not nearly as mediocre as the team we saw in Pullman, they realistically are somewhere in between their last two performances.
I know, buzz kill, right?
I think, however, it's best to get a realistic grasp of UCLA going into the USC game, because it can only enhance your experience. If we have a realistic perspective on the Bruins, and UCLA loses to USC, it won't be such an emotional crash for Bruin fans. On the other hand, if UCLA beats USC it will be that much sweeter.
The Bruins, if they were actually the team we saw on the field last Saturday against Arizona, even playing with all the debilitating factors in the Washington State game, should have looked better in Pullman.
The biggest factor, as it was in the Arizona game, was UCLA's defense. The Cougars had their best offensive day of the season against UCLA's defense. A team that averaged rushing for 25 yards per game and 11 yards per game in conference, practically ran over UCLA for 113 yards. That's 4 ½ times better than their average. UCLA is averaging 210 yards rushing per game, so Washington State's rushing performance would be the equivalent to the Bruins rushing for 945 yards in a game. Washington State passed for 457 yards, and that's easily UCLA's worst game in terms of passing defense (the next worse being the 379 yards it gave up to Oregon State). That was with, too, Washington State's starting quarterback, Jeff Tuel, who was clearly better than his replacement, Connor Halliday, having to leave the game with concussive symptoms early on.
So much of a unit's success depends on match-ups and gameplanning. On one hand, UCLA matched up incredibly well against Arizona and had instituted a defensive game plan that worked like a charm. On the other hand, UCLA didn't match up well against the Cougars and its gameplan didn't work in the slightest. It's clear now that UCLA's mediocre secondary does its best when its cornerbacks can match up against bigger, slower wide receivers. Speed and quickness definitely kills UCLA's corners. Then, UCLA moved Andrew Abbott essentially back to playing more of a free safety role, which didn't help. It also didn't help that Abbott, who we have sung the praises of for his entire career at UCLA, might have had his worst day as a Bruin, consistently missing assignments and tackles. It looked pretty clear that getting pressure on the WSU quarterback was going to be key. That's been the key to every other defense that has faced the Washington State offense, since WSU allows the most sacks in the country. Get pressure in the face of the WSU quarterback, and make him throw quickly, and make WSU's receivers have to get quick separation. It would, because of Washington's inability to pass protect, seemingly follow that UCLA would think it needed to press the receivers and take away WSU's quick outlet. UCLA perhaps got a bit arrogant, believing it could get enough pressure on Tuel/Halliday by mostly going with a four-man or even a three-man rush and, while it garned six sacks, and some consistent pressure, it wasn't enough. Too many times a relatively immobile Halliday had time to find a receiver – and down the field. Once UCLA, then, got up 37-7, it went conservative and played containment defense, went to another defensive back to use mostly a dime, and pulled back some of the mild extra pressure it had been utilizing. That made this whole ecosystem of match-ups fall further on the side of Washington State's offense.
On the other side of the ball, UCLA plainly got out gameplanned by Washington State's defensive coaches. The Cougar rushing defense pretty much took away the majority of what UCLA does in its running game, and it looked like it did it by having it scouted out. Washington State added a man to the box, and flashed a defender through a gap like it knew where Johnathan Franklin was going. UCLA used mostly a zone read, with Hundley mostly handing the ball off to his running back, which makes a running play take a bit longer than just a straight run. So that combination resulted in what seemed like UCLA's most tackles for loss in its running game all season. UCLA, a bit arrogantly, thought it'd be able to run, but Washington State's rushing defense has proven to be decent throughout the season, and especially when it's dedicating itself to rush defense, like it did in this game. So, it was a straight challenge to UCLA: you're going to have to beat us through the air, on a frighteningly cold day in which UCLA's California-warm guys might not be able to execute its passing game nearly as well. UCLA, to its credit, realized it was going to have to throw, and was effective in the second quarter doing it. But Washington State adjusted, and took that extra man it had put in the box to defend the run, and blitzed him, and that worked, too. Hundley was under pressure through most of the second half. UCLA, then, didn't seemingly adjust. It did put a tailback screen into the gameplan, which was responsible for a touchdown, but there weren't enough plays intended to then counter WSU's pressure. Hundley took conventional drops and, after having success with it in the second quarter, looked down the field instead of short far too much the rest of the way.
There was clearly an element to this game that the California team was out of its element. The cold seemed to take UCLA out of its usual game. Jonathan Franklin looked slow and tentative compared to his usual self, running safely rather than with his usual abandon. He also went to his old bugaboo, the fumble. Hundley didn't seem to want to opt to run much at all. If you utilize a zone read and the quarterback never tucks and runs the defense is going to catch on. UCLA's offensive line looked frozen and sluggish, particularly UCLA's freshman tackles, allowing WSU's front seven to practically sidestep them. UCLA's defense looked out of sync and, as I said, Abbott looked like a different player, seemingly because he and the defense had never played in cold like they experienced Saturday.
Give some credit to performances from some Bruins, who basically kept UCLA in the game. Linebacker Anthony Barr was a menace, with 8 tackles, 3 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Defensive linemen Datone Jones was also a constant presence, and was one of the few defenders who didn't seem affected by the cold.
But then there was the performance of linebacker Eric Kendricks. He had 15 tackles in this game, while having to come out twice because of injury, and actually hobbling most of the time on the field. He saved the ass of UCLA's defense time and time again, making tackles that saved game-breakers repeatedly. He also was a guy who didn't seem fazed by the cold, actually looking faster than UCLA's defensive backs in pursuit.
While Jim Mora has definitely changed the program, in so many positive ways, really the most disappointing aspect of the season has easily been this UCLA team's penchant for penalties. It was called 12 times for 126 yards in this game (that's more yardage than WSU gained running the ball), and is the second-most penalized team in the nation, next to USC. The personal fouls are the killers, and you'd think that Mora, with his personality and his emphasis on discipline and accountability, would field a team that wouldn't be susceptible to losing their cool as often as this team does.
This was clearly a trap game. So much had been made of whether UCLA would fall into the trap of playing against the worst team in the conference after coming off the big win over Arizona and possibly looking ahead to USC. That looks like it was definitely the case, with the Bruins appearing sluggish and uninspired. That, combined with the weather and UCLA getting out-coached, made it a very lucky escape from Pullman.
So while we're using sports clichés, hopefully UCLA can use this game as a wake-up call, and as a benefit in preparing for USC. Getting a win this way, in a game in which it was thoroughly out-coached and out-played, preserves the 8-2 record and the match-up for all the marbles against USC, but it also doesn't allow the Bruins to get too arrogant. It's a reminder that this team is probably neither the team we saw against Arizona nor the team we saw against Washington State, but somewhere in between. Not only will it have to have so many elements and match-ups work out positively next Saturday, but the Bruins were probably reminded on that freezing night in Pullman that they will clearly have to be on top of their game to beat USC.