Facts and Factors
• UCLA treks to Pullman, Washington, to take on the Washington State Cougars Saturday night.
• The game will be televised by ESPN at 7:35 p.m. Allen Bestwick and Mike Bellotti will call the game from the booth, while Kris Budden reports from the sideline.
• UCLA fell to 3-3 and 1-2 in the Pac-12 Conference last week after a disappointing loss to Arizona State, 23-20.
• Washington State turned around its season in the last two weeks by beating Stanford, 42-16, last week and Oregon the week before, 51-33, improving its record to 3-2 and 2-0 in the conference. It started the season with losses against Eastern Washington and Boise State, but then had a bye week where it clearly regrouped to go on a three-game winning streak (beating Idaho in its third game of the season).
• For Washington State, it's the first time in 10 seasons, not since 2006, it beat perennial Pac-12 North powers Oregon and Stanford in the same season.
• WSU’s win at Stanford was its first win over at Top-15 team since 2003 (vs. #5 Texas in Holiday Bowl).
• UCLA leads the all-time series against WSU, 40-19-1.
• Even though Pullman is traditionally a tough place to play, the Cougars haven't beaten UCLA on their home turf since 2007, having lost the last two match-ups.
• Last year, WSU beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl, which was a turning point in the Bruins' season. UCLA was ranked 18th in the nation, and was in the driver's season to win the Pac-12 South title. After UCLA looked like it had won the game on a late-fourth-quarter drive capped by a touchdown scramble by Josh Rosen, Washington State drove the field and quarterback Luke Falk threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Gabe Marks with three seconds left to record the 31-27 win.
• If Washington State wins Saturday, it will be the first time the Cougars beat UCLA in consecutive seasons since 2007.
• Washington State's record of 9-4 in 2015 was the first time it's posted a winning record since 2003, when it went 10-3. That was three head coaches ago, when Bill Doba was the Cougar head man.
• WSU recorded a sellout in the season opener against Eastern Washington, and also against Oregon. It now has nine sellouts since coach Mike Leach arrived at WSU in 2012, after only one sellout in the five prior seasons.
• WSU, know for its high-flying passing offense, has recorded two straight games with 200+ rushing yards for the first time since 2005.
• Mike Leach (55) is in his fifth season as head coach in Pullman, with a record of 24-31 with WSU. He spent ten seasons at Texas Tech, where he posted an overall record of 84-43 and gained notoriety with the Air Raid offense. His best season was in 2008 when he guided the Red Raiders to an 11-2 record overall, won the Big 12 and finished the season ranked 12th. He never had a losing season at Texas Tech. Leach was fired from Texas Tech after a controversial incident involving a player, Adam James, the son of former ESPN commentator Craig James, and sat out two seasons before being hired at Washington State. He holds a law degree from Pepperdine and is only one of four current D-1 coaches who did not play college football. Taking the Cougars to two bowl appearances in his first four seasons was a first for a coach in Washington State football history. After last year's 9-4 season, WSU's first winning season since 2003, Leach was named co-Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
• Washington State plays its home games at Martin Stadium, which holds 32,952 seats and utilizes field turf. It's the smallest stadium in the Pac-12.
• Washington State is currently favored by 5, according to most betting lines.
• The weather forecast calls for a high of 56 degrees on Saturday, with a game-time temperature in the high 40s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
UCLA's Offense vs. Washington State's Defense
Washington State's defense is not great by any reasonable measure, but it's still probably a cut above the last two defenses UCLA has played, Arizona State and Arizona. From a yards per play standpoint, the Cougars give up just four yards per rush attempt and a respectable 6.9 yards per pass attempt -- both are pretty solid numbers.
The issue for the Cougars has been the inability to create negative plays and get off the field quickly enough. Washington State is 11th in the Pac-12 in sack percentage, just behind Oregon State (and just ahead of UCLA). It's actually a return to the issue from two years ago, when the Cougars were equally unable to generate big negative plays. So far, the Cougars have been very much a bend-but-don't-break defense, and they've forced some teams into some long drives because of it.
The Cougars run mostly a 4-2-5 nickel defense, and probably the most important player to watch up front is redshirt sophomore Hercules Mata'afa (6'2, 252). The defensive end has accounted for three of Washington State's eight total sacks. On the interior, Washington State will start redshirt senior nose tackle Robert Barber (6'3, 305) and redshirt junior defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale (6'3, 290). Neither contributes much to the pass rush but they've been relatively stout in terms of eating up blockers and affecting the run game. The starting rush end is junior Dylan Hanser (6'4, 240), who hasn't been incredibly effective off the edge this year, recording just two tackles for loss and no sacks. His backup, sophomore Logan Tago (6'3, 235) more or less splits snaps with him, and has been about his equal in production.
The starting linebackers are redshirt junior Isaac Dotson (6'1, 224) at Will and redshirt junior Peyton Pelluer (6'0, 235) at Mike. Dotson is pretty good in coverage, with two interceptions already this year, while Pelluer is the leading tackler (by a hair) this year. Linebacker play hasn't been spectacular for the Cougars this year, and if you're looking for a reason why the defense hasn't been able to get off the field as much, it's mostly due to sometimes spotty linebacker play. Junior Frankie Luvu (6'3, 230) and redshirt senior Paris Taylor (6'3, 223) will also play considerably in relief of the starters.
Washington State will stay in nickel the vast majority of the time. The best player in the secondary is probably senior free safety Shalom Luani (6'0, 205). Luani has three interceptions already this year as well as two additional pass breakups. His counterpart at strong safety, freshman Jalen Thompson (6'0, 183), has been a little spotty at times, which you'd expect from a true freshman, but hasn't given up many disastrous big plays. Cornerback play has been just OK for the Cougars this year, but they've mostly done a nice job of keeping plays in front of them. Sophomore Darrien Molton (5'10, 175) is actually the second-leading tackler on the team this year, which is typically not a good sign, because it means opponent's are attacking him in the pass game and forcing him to make plays. On the other side, junior Marcellus Pippins (5'10, 175) and senior Treshon Broughton (6'0, 185) have more or less split time this season and neither has been extremely effective. Redshirt senior Parker Henry (5'11, 206) will man the nickel spot, and Washington State will also drop him into the box in run support from time to time, as he started out his career as an undersized linebacker.
We think it's very unlikely Josh Rosen plays this week after sustaining both an upper and lower body injury during the game against Arizona State last week. He hasn't really practiced, spending the two sessions working on the side. Conor McDermott confirmed that Mike Fafaul took all of the reps with the offense during practice on Wednesday, so we have to think it's more or less a foregone conclusion that Fafaul will start at quarterback. Fafaul had a very rough time of it on Saturday against Arizona State, completing fewer than 50% of his 11 passes while also throwing two interceptions. With more preparation this week, he could perform better, but it was a disconcerting showing last week. Many have asked whether Devon Modster or Matt Lynch could see time, but we have to think that barring injury, the Bruins will try to ride Fafaul if he's at all competent. If things go very poorly for Fafaul, though, we wouldn't be completely stunned to see a freshman.
The rest of the offense has been a mess. The running game has been ineffectual all year, but never more so than last Saturday, when the Bruins rushed for a grand total of -1 yards. Bolu Olorunfunmi was unavailable for the game because he was in Los Angeles (Jim Mora's words, not ours), leaving Nate Starks and Sotonye Jamabo to shoulder the load. Neither performed well, but they were inhibited by an offensive line that simply couldn't create holes for the backs. UCLA's offensive line play was very bad on Saturday, both in run blocking and pass protection, and if it continues to play at that level, the Bruins are going to have a hard time generating offense.
How's this for a stat? UCLA is 2nd to last in the Power 5 conferences in yards per rush attempt, ahead of only Kansas, at 2.9 yards per rush attempt. The next closest Pac-12 team is Arizona State, which is rushing for a full yard more per attempt. This is not just a bad UCLA rushing attack -- it's a contender for the worst since Karl Dorrell's first year.
Not to be outdone, UCLA's receivers were also bad on Saturday, showing once again that Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte departed with two of the only reliable sets of hands in Westwood. Senior receiver Kenny Walker dropped two sure touchdowns in the game, but there were a small handful of other drops as well. One of the football analytic sites has UCLA with 20 drops this season, but it certainly seems like more than that. In any case, receiver play has been a significant issue, and with Rosen likely not available for this game, any drops by the receiving corps are going to have even more of a pronounced effect.
ADVANTAGE: Washington State
A Rosen-less UCLA offense could have a hard time generating anything at all. Last week, UCLA's rushing attack reached its nadir against a just OK Arizona State run defense, and there's no way to project that it will suddenly get better. We tend to think that the issues are systemic, with the offensive line simply unable to block the way they need to in order for the Bruins to successful run out of this scheme. If you can't consistently win one-on-ones up front with your interior line, it's very difficult to run between the tackles in a power system. There's very little surprise involved in UCLA's rushing attack, so it requires offensive linemen to out-execute their defensive line counterparts, and so far that just hasn't happened. We don't think it's going to happen, either.
Fafaul should be a little better with a week to prepare after being thrust into duty against a blitz-happy ASU team. Washington State doesn't pressure as much as ASU, but we have to imagine the Cougars will bring more knowing that Fafaul is in rather than Rosen. We can't imagine he will look so much better, though, that he'll be able to lead this fundamentally crippled UCLA offense to the kind of offensive performance it will need against this explosive Washington State team. Given what we saw last week, when UCLA basically abandoned the run in favor of the pass, there's little faith within the program in the team's ability to run, and that could spell real issues for the offense on Saturday.
Given the issues with UCLA's run game, every game from here on out is going to call for UCLA's quarterback to throw certainly more than 30 times per game, and probably significantly more than that. When it's Rosen doing the throwing, that's not such a bad thing, but when it's Fafaul, or any number of freshman backups, we can't see a scenario where that ends up anything other than disastrous.
Special teams have been pretty mediocre for Washington State this year. The Cougars have missed all five of their field goal attempts this season, and at this point, we wouldn't be shocked if Mike Leach refuses to kick another one all year. Redshirt junior Erik Powell (6'1, 195) has missed from as close as 22 yards and as far away as 43, and just doesn't look comfortable at all. He's been decent enough on kickoffs, with 12 touchbacks in 35 kicks, but he's not the strongest kicker UCLA will face this year. Washington State's punting game is pretty bad as well, as the Cougars have used wide receiver Kyle Sweet as their rugby punter this year. He's averaging nearly 40 yards per punt, but has downed just one of his 10 inside the 20. On shorter punts, the Cougars will use sophomore Zach Charme (6'1, 201), and he's been able to down four of his six punts inside the 20.
Washington State's return game has been nothing to speak of, with the Cougars averaging 17 yards per kick returner with a host of different players, and 7 yards per punt return thanks to Kaleb Fossum (5'11, 185). The Cougars have allowed one kickoff return for a touchdown this year, but have allowed just three total punt returns, since they don't kick it that far.
UCLA's special teams are no great shakes either. J.J. Molson is 9 of 14 on field goals this year with a long of 39 yards. He's missed every attempt from over 40 yards, and UCLA actually punted from the 34 yard line in the last game rather than have him attempt a 51-yarder. Austin Kent, for his part, hasn't been great this year at punter, though better than what UCLA had last year. He's averaging just over 40 yards per punt, but has downed just 9 of 34 inside the 20. The return game has been just OK, with the Bruins averaging 4.5 yards per punt return collectively and 22 yards per kick return. Last week, Adarius Pickett muffed several returns that he thankfully recovered. Kick coverage has been fine if unspectacular.
This is a very poorly timed game for UCLA. Washington State has clearly righted the pirate ship after a rough start to the season, and have blown out former North powers Oregon and Stanford in successive weeks. While neither of those teams is good this year, the Cougars have looked impressive in both wins, and their offense is clearly playing a level that we haven't seen out of Mike Leach's squads in Pullman. The Bruins have to go against that explosive offense without, most likely, their one great equalizer on offense, Josh Rosen.
This game virtually requires the best performance from the UCLA defense this season. The defense has been very good all year, but it will effectively need to win this game for the Bruins by limiting Washington State to probably half of its season averages. It's hard to imagine a Fafaul-led UCLA offense generating more than a few scoring drives, given how much UCLA's running game has struggled and how much the offense as a whole has struggled even with Rosen at the helm. So, we have to think it'll be difficult for UCLA's offense to score more than 17 to 21 points in this one without some timely turnovers and big plays from the UCLA defense.
Right now, Washington State is averaging 44 points per game, so for UCLA to win, the Bruins will most likely need to find a way to halve that total. The lowest scoring total for the year for the Cougars was 28 against Boise State, but admittedly, the Bruins probably have the best defense that Washington State has faced.
Ultimately, we think UCLA will hang in this game in the first half, thanks largely to this defense, and we wouldn't be shocked to see a one-score game or even a tie game at the half. But in the second half, we could see the UCLA defense getting worn down as it spends long stretches on the field while the offense sputters. If they force a lot of mistakes, and can get a turnover advantage of +2 or more, there's a chance UCLA could be in it until the end, but playing the averages, we think UCLA will end up with its first legitimate multi-score defeat of the season.
Washington State 28