Game Week: UCLA Defense vs. WSU Offense

Oct. 12 -- UCLA goes to Washington State this weekend to take on a Cougar team with one of the best offenses in the country...

UCLA's Defense vs. Washington State's Offense

What we all need to internalize is that, no matter the quality of a particular Washington State team, the Cougars are going to lose to an FCS team every year under Mike Leach. Chaotic results in the early season are pretty much the order of the day there.

That said, this is clearly an improved Washington State team from the beginning of the season -- though both Stanford and Oregon have taken a step back from recent years, blowing them both out in successive weeks is still a semi-impressive feat.

As has been the case with basically every Mike Leach team through time immemorial, the Cougars are built largely on a very good offense which is rated in the top 20 by most advanced stats metrics, as well as conventional metrics. The big twist this year is that the offense has actually been balanced -- instead of the pure Air Raid that Leach has run in the past, Washington State is running the ball nearly 38% of the time. That's still pretty low by any objective measure, but for Washington State, which has much more regularly run the ball fewer than 30% of snaps, it represents a significant shift.

By the numbers, the Cougars are averaging 6.3 yards per play, which is the best number of the Leach era by a pretty wide margin. In an eye-popping statistic, Washington State is also averaging 5.2 yards per rush attempt, which is good for 22nd in the country and, again, the best number of the Leach era. The 7.3 yards per pass attempt is much more in-line with previous Washington State teams, as the fundamentals of the Air Raid passing game haven't changed much. The balance on offense, though, has certainly led to the most effective offense of Leach's time in Pullman.

It all starts at quarterback for Washington State, which returns redshirt junior Luke Falk (6'4, 216), who is clearly a perfect fit for Mike Leach's system. He put up absurd numbers last year (38 touchdowns against eight interceptions) and he's on pace to do something similar this year, with 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions.  Last year, he completed 69% of his passes, which is pretty good for a Leach quarterback, but this year he's up to nearly 75%, which is top-level performance in any offense, but particularly this one. Throwing the ball slightly fewer times appears to be helping him increase his efficiency overall, and he's certainly putting together his best year in college.

RB Gerard Wicks (USA Today)

But, look, guys, we have to talk about the running backs next. Washington State has a triumvirate of running backs who all get about equal carries in redshirt junior Gerard Wicks (6'0, 227), redshirt freshman James Williams (5'11, 199), and redshirt junior Jamal Morrow (5'9, 201). The freshman Williams has really been the one to set the group apart thus far. Already this year, he's averaging seven yards per carry and has four touchdowns. He shows very good vision for a young player, and has good speed. Morrow has also been excellent, with 6.2 yards per carry, while Wicks, the bigger back, has been used slightly more often on short yardage, which accounts for his lower average yards per carry (4.9) but also his higher touchdown total (five). All told, the rushing attack has accounted for 13 Washington State touchdowns compared to 16 through the air, which is pretty crazy to see. If you factor in that the running backs, who are all used extensively in the passing game as well, have accounted for an additional three receiving touchdowns, the breakdown becomes even more bonkers.

The receiving corps has been mostly excellent as well. 10th year senior River Cracraft (6'0, 200) and redshirt senior Gabe Marks (6'0, 227) are the two headliners of the group. Marks has been the go-to guy in the red zone this year, with six touchdowns already, but he has explosive playmaking ability as well. Cracraft is leading the team in yardage, but it's foolish to really focus on any particular receiver in Washington State's offense. Nine players have 12 or more catches this year and 100 or more yards this year, as the Cougars are pretty obsessively balanced. The big play threat to keep an eye on is sophomore Kyle Sweet (6'0, 190), who is averaging 17.2 yards per catch this year, which is a pretty high average in a Leach offense. Sophomore Tavares Martin (6'1, 185) is another one to keep an eye on, as he is the second-leading receiver on the team this year behind Marks.

The offensive line has been very good as well. Washington State has given up 11 sacks on over 250 drop-backs this year, which ranks the Cougars just outside of the top 25 this season in terms of QB sack percentage. As we mentioned above, this is also the best rushing offense for the Cougars under Mike Leach, which speaks to excellent play up front. Redshirt sophomore Andre Dillard (6'5, 295) is a new starter at left tackle, but he hasn't been a major issue this season -- in fact, he might be performing the best of anyone in the group. Next to him at left guard has been another newcomer to the line, mammoth redshirt junior Cody O'Connell (6'8, 354). If you were pointing to any one reason why Washington State is having so much success in the running game, O'Connell's mass and talent for run-blocking is as good an answer as any. At center and on the right side, Washington State has more stability, with returning starters in senior center Riley Sorenson (6'4, 330), redshirt senior right guard Eduardo Middleton (6'5, 316), and redshirt junior right tackle Cole Madison (6'5, 318). 

UCLA's defense, for its part, has also turned into one of the best units in the country after a middling start to the season. The Bruins have been mostly excellent through the last four games especially, as they've gotten healthier and transition to more of a Cover 1-based defensive approach, which has allowed them to play more aggressively against the run. This might be the best defense of the Mora era at UCLA.

Takkarist McKinley (Photo by Steve Cheng)

The improved health of Takkarist McKinley has certainly aided UCLA since the opening two games. McKinley has been really difficult to block when he's played, but he has been nursing a nagging groin injury that could impede him all year. Even still, he's due for a game where he racks up multiple sacks and tackles for loss, as he has spent much of this season getting into the backfield with ease. Also up front, Eddie Vanderdoes has been, by some accounts, one of the best interior defensive linemen in the country at stopping the run. 

Linebacker play has also improved, with Kenny Young looking like a completely different player, and Jayon Brown also coming alive a bit after a slow start to the season. Each of them is playing faster and with more freedom than they did at the beginning of the year, and the defense is starting to look like it has some swagger again after looking like that quality exited with Myles Jack last season.

The secondary was without Nathan Meadors last week, and the coaches opted to play Randall Goforth at cornerback in his place. Goforth didn't have a great game at corner, so hopefully Meadors will be back on the field this week. For the most part, the secondary has been very good this year, and arguably the most consistent unit on the team. Cornerback play especially has been very good, and much of that is attributable to Fabian Moreau and Meadors.

Overall, the defense is clearly playing its best football right now, but pretty soon it's going to need some help from the offense or else it's a foregone conclusion that it will wear down as the season goes on.

ADVANTAGE: EVEN

It's even in this sense: Washington State is going to score points, but it's going to be held below its averages. UCLA's defense has been too good through the last four games to assume that they're going to get run over by the Cougars, but by the same token, Washington State has been too good since their opening game blip against Eastern Washington to assume that they're suddenly going to be shut down by a pretty good defense.

Meadors' availability is actually pretty critical. Against Washington State's four- and five-wide spread, you really need a full complement of your best defensive backs, and Meadors is certainly one of those. Meadors and Moreau have both been good this year as limiting the opposing team's best receivers, but the drop off behind them is considerable.

It's going to be hard for UCLA to commit too much to the run, simply because the Cougars are going to force the Bruins into nickel and dime defenses a lot. This game is going to require an excellent overall performance from the defensive line, which will have to both get pressure with four and stop the run largely with four or five. Falk generally gets the ball out so quickly that you really have to pick your spots when blitzing him -- even on long third downs, Washington State has no problem throwing short of the sticks and letting receivers make plays. 

This will really be the matchup of the game here. Given the question marks surrounding UCLA's offense, the Bruins really need to dominate this side of the matchup and limit Washington State to a significant extent. Whether that's possible at this point is anyone's guess.

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