WSU Preview & Expectations

UCLA goes to Pullman to take on Washington State in what, to put it bluntly, is the biggest game in the young head coaching career of Karl Dorrell. How will the Bruins match up against the Cougars? Here is what we objectively can expect...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS:

-- UCLA (6-3, 4-1) travels to Pullman, Washington, to take on Washington State (7-2, 4-1). The Huskies are ranked #12 and #13 in the two polls, respectively.

-- In the overall series, UCLA holds a 34-14-1 lead. Washington State, though, has won five of the last seven games, including a 48-27 beating last year at the Rose Bowl. In Pullman, WSU has won three straight over UCLA.

-- The last time UCLA won in Pullman was 1993.

-- WSU is coached by Bill Doba, in his first year as head coach. Doba had been an assistant with the Cougars for 14 years prior to being hired after Mike Price's departure. In those 14 years, he served as linebacker coach, assistant head coach and defensive coordinator.

-- Washington State has recorded 150 sacks over the last four seasons, ranking second in the nation behind Texas, with 152. WSU is also tied for the third most interceptions of any college program in the last three years.

-- WSU teams that have gone to a bowl game are 6-0-1 against UCLA.

-- Dave Ball has 12.5 sacks on the season, which ties him for second on the UCLA single-season list. He has three more games to break the school record of 13 sacks held by Carnell Lake in 1987. Ball is also currently tied for first in career sacks, registering 26.5 for his career. He's tied with Eric Smith, who played in 1984-1988.

-- WSU and UCLA have three common opponents so far this season. The Cougars beat Colorado 47-26; Arizona 30-7, and Stanford 24-14. UCLA lost to Colorado 14-16; beat Arizona 24-21, and lost to Stanford 21-14.

-- WSU's Martin Stadium holds 35,117, and utilizes Field Turf.

-- The weather in Pullman is expected to be in the mid-40s and partly cloudy for Saturday.

-- Washington State is the #1 passing team in the Pac-10, averaging 300.6 yards per game through the air.

-- The game will be televised by ABC at 4:00 p.m.

PREVIEW AND GAME EXPECTATIONS

Any casual reader of Jane's Defence Weekly knows that "incestuous amplification" is "a condition in warfare where one only listens to those who are already in lockstep agreement, reinforcing set beliefs and creating a situation ripe for miscalculation."

Spend a moment chatting with other BROs, and the danger of trying to write about consensus expectations ("The sky is falling!" "No it isn't, we're tied for first." "Yes it is, we're last in the nation.") for the most important game of the year with any precognition should be readily apparent.

Damn, I love this gig.

But forget BROs illicit tendency for incestuous amplification. It's Karl Dorrell and Crew that I'm worried about.

Matt Moore & Maurice Drew (AP)
Because this is the biggest game of Karl Dorrell's life. Much hangs in the balance: this year's recruiting and beyond, the support of the program's followers, the perception in the media, possibly even support within the administration.

Lose ugly, as many expect, and those factors begin sliding south (central) faster than you can lisp, "U-thee-LA ith a JOKE! If ith November, ith time to collapthe!"

Why do many expect an ugly loss? Because of UCLA's steadfast conviction to stick with its offensive philosophy even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that change is in order.

Too many unproductive plunges into the line beget too many wasted plays which produce too many long yardage situations which allow the opponent too often to bring intense pressure upon a protection unit that too often doesn't decipher the enemy's intent until it's too late, leaving too many blitzers unblocked to apply too many too vicious pops on a still-too-inexperienced QB, forcing the staff to keep in too many blockers so that too few ‘hot' receivers are available to get into the pattern, thereby perpetuating a vicious downward spiral resulting in defeat.

On the other hand (what would we do without radial symmetry?), the UCLA offense in the first quarter and a half of the Stanford game operated as well as it has all season. Matt Moore was practically perfect with every read and throw, hitting wide-open receivers 8 of 9 times, and the running game was quietly effective, picking up positive yardage almost every play, with Maurice Drew looking ready to bust a long one every time he touched the ball.

And there's the danger. Karl Dorrell, with his back already to the wall in game 10 of his head coaching career, has to look at the film and think, "We were even kicking their BAND's @ss, we were so dominant. If we hadn't tried for the home run on the play after Jarrad Page's pick [Head Coaching 101: TV analysts love it when you throw long after getting a turnover], then Stanford's blitz wouldn't have been the perfect call and nailed us. If we hadn't gotten greedy, we march down, we score, and we have their D and the game by the throat. And the running game is okay. We're averaging 126.8 yards per game and 3.9 per carry if you throw out the stupid yards lost to sacks. Geez, we're giving up 27.6 yards per game in sacks. If we fix that, we're blue and golden!"

Maybe. Maybe. I can feel the incestuous amplification growing within the staff during their film session faster than a pair of Kentucky first-cousins can spawn a litter of six-fingered kids. Can you?

So here's the deal: Karl Dorrell is as committed to his formula of winning football as ever. Conservative, methodical O + strong, don't-give-up-the-big-play D + great special teams = an upset victory over a favored opponent on the road. Dorrell has been dealt a hand, and he's playing that hand, he believes, as best as he can to win the pot on the table. The man's faith is nowhere close to being shaken, and time will tell if he's right.

Washington State is a very dangerous team for UCLA. Their strengths are UCLA's weaknesses. And the Cougs have rebounded from a November loss with a win in the next game over the last four seasons. So they got that going for them.

The first thing to know about Wazzou is that their D gets to the passer. The Cougs are second in the Pac-10 with 32 sacks on the season. The main troublemakers are SO LB Will Derting and SR DE D.D. Acholonu (gesundheit). Derting has 6.5 sacks on the season, one .11 BAL DUI and one incredibly lame suspension. Joe Dert was supposed to sit out a game, but he was back in after a quarter because his replacement, LB Scott Davis, got dinged up. Bill Doba, Disciplinarian of the Year! (Doba is a graduate of Dave Ball State, by the way.)

Will Derting (AP)
Sneezy Acholonu, the 6-3, 245 lb ball of speed and hate, has 7.5 sacks on the season. The Wazzou DEs (Sneezy and the 6-2, 229 lb Isaac Brown) are decidedly undersized, but extremely quick, especially when matched up against large OTs like UCLA's. Sneezy (23.5) and Brown (20.5) are #2 and #4 respectively all-time on the Cougs' list of sack leaders.

Wazzou has had big sack games against Notre Dame (7) (Fire Willingham!) and Oregon State (7), but noticeably light games against Arizona (0), Colorado (2) and USC (1). Of course, after the butchering laid on the Cougs by the zebras with brutal call after brutal call on sacks of Matt Leinart, the sack total is artificially low.

The next thing to know about the D is that they are incredibly experienced. Ten guys on D have each played in more than 30 games, and five others have seen action in at least 20. Every unit is experienced: six LBers have a collective 66 starts (149 games played), four DBs have 93 starts (145 games played), and the top DL have a collective 93 starts (199 games played).

Maybe that's why the Cougs are only allowing a 3rd down conversion rate of 22.1%. Wow. Out of, say, 15 3rd down chances in a game, you'll get three conversions. Nice. Keep the punter's hip joint loose! USC, on the otherhand, allows a conversion rate of 40.3%.

Ya gotta think that all that pressure would maybe lead to some picks, right? Damn, you can't slide anything past a BRO: The Cougs have 18 on the year to lead the Pac-10, with CB Jason David (one of the best in the nation when he's not getting clocked by a LBer teammate) leading the team with 5, but FS Erik Coleman has 4 and so does SS Virgil Williams. David plays the D's right side only (like Matt Ware), so maybe LCB Karl Paymah (6-0, 198) is the weak link.

The Cougs don't just pick the ball, they force and recover fumbles as well. They're second in the Pac with 13 fumble recoveries (while UCLA has only had 5).

On O, Wazzou leads the Pac-10 by throwing for 300.6 yards per game. They only run for 103 ypg, so throwing the pig is their specialty. What's disconcerting is that UCLA, while 3rd best in the Pac-10 in pass defense efficiency, still allows 59.3% of its opponent's passes to be completed, the 2nd worst in the Pac-10. (Wazzou only allows 48.7% of passes completed.)

While Matt Kegel has two bum shoulders and a partially torn MCL in his knee, he is still expected to start. After what Jason Gesser did to Phil Snow's UCLA defense last year with his injuries, Matt could be a quadruple amputee (get it?) and I wouldn't be surprised if he threw for 300 on Saturday. His back-up, Josh Swogger, looked pretty competent against USC, moving fluidly and confidently, and throwing the ball with authority. He's second string for a reason, but that doesn't mean he couldn't perform if need be.

Wazzou's playmakers on O are WR Devard Darling (the FSU transfer), WR Sammie Moore and Scott Lunde, the slot receiver in the Coug's typical one back, three wide set. Lunde is the third down specialist, running slants from the inside slot spot into dangerous middle space and getting away with it time after time. Oregon State caught on, and SS Mitch Meusen intercepted three passes (OSU snagged five overall), but no one else has.

Moore is the big play receiver, averaging almost 23 ypc, with four TDs. Moore is also the Cougs' punt and KO returner. His average of 131 all-purpose ypg put him 2nd in the Pac-10.

Devard Darling (Getty Images)
Darling is just the all-around, do-everything stud WR that seem to proliferate in the Pac-10. At 6-3 and 213, he's big enough to catch short passes and rack up RAC, and he's fast enough to get deep. Down near the goal line, he's Mr. Jump Ball for WSU. He's just a notch below Reggie Williams and Mike Williams for highest impact WR in the Pac.

Darling only has 38 catches on the year to lead the Cougs (Craig Bragg has 50) because Wazzou does such a good job of spreading the ball around. Nine Cougs have 15 or more catches on the year. At least seven different Cougs have caught a pass in each game this year. Watch out for Batman, Adam West, at TE, as well as the 6-8 true FR TE, Cody Boyd. Boyd is also instrumental to WSU's kick block unit. Wazzou has blocked four place kicks this season, and Boyd has two of them.

And lest you think that Wazzou has no running game, Jonathan Smith, the 5-10, 190 lb SR, has rushed for 535 yards on the year, averaging about 60 ypg. Chris Bruhn (40 ypg) and Jermaine Green (28 ypg), a 230 lb load who busted an 80-yard TD run on UCLA last year, round out the rotation and give WSU fresh legs to run the ball on every down.

Punter Kyle Basler, at 43.7, is 3rd in the Pac-10, right behind Chris Kluwe at 43.8. However, WSU is 2nd in the Pac-10 in net punting, at 40.4 ypp. UCLA is 8th, at 35.6. Thank you, Mr. Perkins.

Bill Doba, after backing into the head gig after many, many, many years as a DC, should enjoy this season while he can. Of the 22 starters, 16 are seniors. Sayonara! When one thinks of ‘re-loading,' one thinks of Charles Bronson, not WSU.

And for such an experienced team, the Cougs sure do commit a lot of penalties. The Cougs are the 2nd most penalized team in the league, averaging 8 a game for 104 penalty ypg. Wazzou only draws 70.2 ypg in penalties, so they have a 34 ypg deficit on average. You'll be able to knock me over with a feather if WSU has 30 or more yards in penalties than UCLA does. The Bruins themselves also operate at a deficit, getting penalized 16 more ypg than they draw in penalties.

If you're planning to score the game at home, pay careful attention to the 3rd quarter. The Cougs are unbeaten in the last 25 games in which they've scored in the 3rd quarter. They're only 2-7 in the last nine games when they haven't scored in the 3rd. Of course, given how much better WSU starts than its opponents do, it may not matter. WSU has a 89-18 edge in the 1st quarter, and a 146-71 edge in the second; both margins are signs of a very well-coached team.

Offense:

My fear is that UCLA will play right into Washington State's hands. Same old plays in the same old sequence, making the game plan concocted by Doba et al. look like sheer genius scouting in the eyes of the Coug defenders on the field, pumping their confidence level sky high. If so, this game could be unwatchable, and pretty early at that.

The last time UCLA played WSU in Pullman, the Cougs used a five-down linemen defensive front. That game was DeShaun Foster's last game in uniform as a Bruin, and he was bottled up by the extra DL. The Bruins weren't able to exploit the down-a-man secondary because UCLA couldn't protect the passer well enough. Doba is just sneaky enough to discern that Dorrell's O is highly dependent on the run, that UCLA will run the ball a lot on 1st down (especially if a 1st down was gained through the air), and that you have UCLA's O at your mercy if you put it into 2nd or 3rd and long because UCLA's pass protection schemes are easily confused/defeated. I wouldn't be surprised to see a 5 man DL from WSU to start the game.

I'd love to see UCLA do something imaginative and surprising on O. Shotgun on passing downs. Run a draw or two, especially from a spread formation on 3rd and short to medium. Throw a bubble screen. Even run some trickeration, as much as I came to dislike Bob Toledo's blatant efforts to pander to the Hollywood crowd attracted to eye candy and fireworks.

In his weekly press conference, Karl Dorrell said he was going to "try to develop a tremendous game plan" for this week's game. But he also said, "You have to understand that there is a time element in how much you can do, how much you can teach." Is there hope? In practice this week, the Bruins showed some new wrinkles. But it's one of those situations where if we told you we'd have to kill you. Or if we told you, UCLA would have to kill us.

By temperament, my guess is that Dorrell, though, still won't show any drastic new plays/sets. Even if they practiced them this week, which they've done in previous weeks, there still seems to be somewhat of a disconnect between practicing them and the plays/sets actually getting in the game plan and then getting utilized in the game. So, you might see a few new wrinkles, but I'm not expecting much in the way of innovation this Saturday.

Like most coaches, Dorrell reacted to Stanford's ability to get to Matt Moore with the reflexive urge to withdraw into a shell: "That's anyone's answer, when you can't figure out what's going on or what the protection should be, is to try to maximize the protection as well as you can and then what happens is we have small backs too. Our backs are blocking people that are probably a lot bigger than they are. And that has become an issue of whether they can hold up or not."

Welcome to the paradox of life. The more you try to hold on to something, the more elusive it becomes. Especially if you have small backs. The sad thing is that Moore did a good job in the first half dumping the ball off to his running backs when the blitz came. Pat Norton took one catch of a short pass on a blitz and turned it into an 11-yard gain and a first down.

Most of all, I'd love to see Matt Moore display the physical and mental toughness a QB needs to be a bona fide leader on a team. The pictures of him hanging his head on the sideline, and his skittishness in the pocket on some of the blitzes, have done nothing for his image. QBs are not automatically considered football players on most teams; the inordinate amount of pampering and protection from physical pain they receive throughout practices and conditioning serves to separate them from the other guys. If they weren't so damgum important, most of them would be treated no better than placekickers. But they are important, critically important, so the slack they have with their teammates is razor thin. So butch-up, Matt. A manly performance in the face of what might be an ass-whipping is the best thing you can do for yourself and UCLA football in the long-term.

I expect UCLA's O to flounder this game. WSU's DL will be strong enough to withstand UCLA's power-running game with little trouble, especially since Manuel White is lost for the season. With the running game smashed, WSU knows that UCLA knows that WSU knows that UCLA must pass. And UCLA will pass anyway. "Look out" block city. Incoming!

Defense:

I expect UCLA to have a decent game against WSU. Matt Kegel isn't 100%, he has a hard time getting his shoulder loose in the 1st quarter, so that will help UCLA contain WSU's passing game, at least for a while.

Ryan Boschetti (AP)
WSU eventually will hurt UCLA with the passing game, but probably not the big play downfield. The longer the ball is in the air, the more likely UCLA is to come down with it. UCLA, however, is vulnerable in the curl zones, and on outs/hitches. Look for WSU to make some key plays on those kind of passes. .

Slant passes to Lunde have been such a staple of Wazzou's diet that I think UCLA will have the DE to his side drop into the slant zone while a LBer blitzes from the other side. Unfortunately, other teams have been reading this ploy frequently and attack it by running off-tackle right at the DE who is back-pedaling at the snap. Not a sound plan for stuffing the run. .

Which brings me to my guess for WSU's sleeper weapon of choice: RB Jonathon Smith. Running out of the shotgun has bothered UCLA's D all year. They never saw it in spring or fall camp, and Dorrell's sentiments aside ("We are getting better at defending that set."), it just provides too much flexibility for a team playing without Rodney Leisle, Mat Ball and Matt Ware to dominate.

The drop-off from Mat Ball to David Tautofi is probably the biggest we've seen from a starter to a 2nd teamer this year. The pincer action Mat and Dave Ball provide on the pass rush has been a life-saver for UCLA time after time this year. Perhaps we'll see Asi Faoa play nearly a full game, shuffling between the three-man rotation at DT/NG with Ryan Boschetti and C.J. Niusulu and the LDE spot. .

Another weapon for WSU will be the TE over the middle or up the seam. Alex Smith of Stanford had no trouble getting open for key catches. Expect WSU's TEs to be effective.

Special Teams:

The UCLA special teams are probably outmatched this week.

Sammie Moore is the Pac-10's leading kick-off returner, and PK Justin Medlock's kick-offs might not carry as far in the cold of the night as they do in the heat of the day in Pasadena. Luckily, the Bruins' KO coverage team has been flying down field and making play after play all year. I expect it to continue.

However, punt returning is another matter. Moore is #3 in the Pac at 10.5/return, with one TD already. UCLA's punt coverage team isn't the most athletic unit, and if P Chris Kluwe outkicks the coverage, it could be ugly. UCLA's gunners need to make plays on the returner.

In the battle of the placekickers, you might think Medlock would have the edge, given how well he's played (10 of 12). However, WSU's Drew Dunning is 20 of 22, with overtime experience. Push, at best.

Overall:

My fear is that UCLA will get blown out like last year, but that is a small fear.

All things considered, I expect the Cougars to win a low-scoring, rather unattractive (unless you enjoy defensive prowess) game, 20-10.

If my expectation is met, the Bruins will be 0-2 in November, and in very real danger of going 0-4 or even 1-3 for the month. I can hear, in unison, those unnerving assertions that the Bruins are heartless rising and reverberating within the media echo chamber (eg, ESPN equates UCLA's 6-3 record to a "tough year") for the next 12 months.

Dorrell isn't ducking the challenge: "We feel pretty good about what we can be when we're ready to play. We'll get our kids ready to play."

Hopefully this isn't just Dorrell talking about it, but doing it. And we won't have to hear those echoes for the next year...


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