NOTEWORTHY FACTORS:-- UCLA and Washington State have not played since 1998, when UCLA beat Washington State at the Rose Bowl, 49-17. The year before, WSU beat the Bruins in Pullman, 37-34.
-- DeShaun Foster is the first UCLA tailback to run for 1000 yards (1007) by the first seven games of season.
-- WSU allowed just 299 rushing yards in the opening five games, but in the last three they have allowed 799 yards. Oregon's Onterrio Smith ran for 285 yards last week and WSU game up a total of 446 rushing yards in its loss to Oregon.
-- WSU is #1 scoring offense in pac-10 (40.6), #1 in passing offense (325.5) and #1 in total offense (480.1).
-- Washington State is UCLA's sixth ranked opponent so far this year.
-- UCLA has thrown for 629 yards in its last two games.
-- The 17 points Washington State scored against Oregon was its lowest of season, and first time they hadn't scored more than twice that – 34 – in a game this year.
-- The Cougars gained only one net yard in the 11 rushes its offense attempted on first down in the first three quarters of last week's Oregon game.
-- Washington State's senior wide receiver Nakoa McElrath is #1in the Pac-10 in receptions, and ranked 16th nationally (6.75 per game). He's also seventh in the nation in reception yards (109.25).
-- Robert Thomas leads the Pac-10 in tackles for loss (18) and is tied for lead of tackles per game (10.1).
WASHINGTON STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
This is the real battle of the Titans in this game, the #1 offense in the Pac-10 against the #1 defense in the Pac-10. You would think that something has to give.
Washington State has the most potent and effective offense in the conference, mainly due to the efficiency of its quarterback, Jason Gesser. The junior is on track to set a ton of Cougar records, and is maintaining a very high efficiency ranking while throwing more than 30 times a game. He's thrown 18 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions. He is having the best year of any quarterback in the Pac-10 and it's almost an unsung year, hearing very little about him. Gesser isn't very big (6-1), and has just a good arm, but he's accurate, and athletic and mobile. He's also getting plenty of time to throw, being sacked just 13 times this season.
Even if Gesser doesn't have enough time he'll probably see his #1 target, Nakoa McElrath, (pictured above right) open. McElrath is, stats-wise, having the best season in the Pac-10 among receivers. He's big (6-3), strong and very good at using his body for position. And it doesn't get any easier on the other side of the line where 6-6 converted basketball player (sound familiar?) Mike Bush starts at the other wide out position. Bush, on a lark, tried his hand at football last spring, and was so good, he became a starter this fall and is having a fantastic year, catching 34 balls for 702 yards so far this season. McElrath and Bush are easily the best wide receiver duo that UCLA's defense has faced yet this year. Their height along, one being 6-3 and the other 6-6, presents problems for just about any opposing defense. It appeared that Oregon last week kept the two under wraps a bit and they still combined for close to 200 yards on 11 catches. The secret, though, was Oregon kept the two out of the endzone, which was a feat, given the fact that they each have 8 touchdown receptions on the year. Jerome Riley is another threat to pay attention to; he was the wide receiver who did indeed get the one lone touchdown pass against the Ducks.
But Washington State is, by no means, a one-dimensional, pass-happy team. They're averaging 154 yards a game on the ground, and have the conference's second leading yard-gainer in Dave Minnich. Minnich is a big back, one that takes some gang-tackling to bring down. Washington State's running game, though, took a dive, so to speak, last week against Oregon, which has one of the worse total defenses in the Pac-10. Oregon, though, had the formula to defend Washington State's high-powered offense. Oregon ran the ball, dominated the clock, shut down Washington's State's running game and turned Washington State into a one-dimensional passing team.
What's a bit surprising is, despite the fact that Washington State is a veteran laden team, its offensive line is still very young. Against UCLA the Cougars will start three juniors, a sophomore and a freshman. Their leader was senior guard John Hollenbeck, but he's hobbled by injury. Even so, WSU's offensive line has still performed far beyond their years.
UCLA's defense, on the other hand, while ranked #1 in the conference, will have something to prove coming off its worse showing of the year last week against Stanford. Having shut down every running offense so far this year, UCLA's defense let Stanford's running game do just about anything it wanted – at least in the first half. The defense fared better against the pass, but it also lost its senior starting strong safety in Jason Stephens. Replacing him is redshirt freshman Ben Emanuel, who has played spottily in a back-up role this year. UCLA's best defensive player in the last several games has probably been free safety Marques Anderson, (pictured at left)and he'll have his hands full on Saturday with a rookie next to him and facing Washington State's passing game. UCLA's defense failed to get enough pressure on Stanford's Chris Lewis, and Washington State has shown to be able to protect its quarterback as well as Stanford. If UCLA can't get some hits on Gesser, it could be a very long day. If UCLA hopes to win this game, the defense will have to come out of the gate with some fire, like it did in the first half of the season and didn't do last week against Stanford.
But while UCLA's defense is coming off its worse showing of the season, so is Washington State's offense. So, in this match-up it's a matter of redemption – which unit will pick itself up from last week and redeem itself.
Advantage: Washington State. It's close and Washington State's offense didn't look good last week, but UCLA has shown some vulnerability against the run recently, even against Cal two weeks ago. If Washington State can gains some yards on the ground, it has an edge. UCLA's defense won't fall apart, and it won't even look near as bad as it did against Stanford in the first half of last week's game. But with all of Washington State weapons, and UCLA's defense seemingly having lost a little bit of its aggressiveness, especially in the pass rush, it will enable Cougars to get some points.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. WASHINGTON STATE'S DEFENSE
The big question of the week here is health. Which UCLA quarterback will be healthy enough to start? Washington State also has some key personnel on its defensive unit that are injured and doubtful for the game.
Washington's State defense, though, still has some standout players. Perhaps the best is senior free safety Lamont Thompson. (pictured at right) At 6-2 and 220, he packs a wallop, and is all around the ball. His partner in crime is also an All-Pac-10 level player, strong safety Billy Newman. The two, next to UCLA's own Anderson and Stephens, could be the best safety tandem in the Pac-10.
Where the Cougars might be vulnerable is at cornerback, where they'll start two sophomores. Erik Coleman has been filling in for injured senior Marcus Truffant, which leaves the Cougars with two sophomores at its corners, both of whom are under 5-10. UCLA will try hard to use its big wide receivers, Ryan Smith (pictured below left)and Tab Perry, exploit them. Smith has really stepped up in the absense of injured Brian Poli-Dixon and has filled the go-to receiver role quite well. Perry having a big game could be a sign that UCLA wins here.
Washington State's defense, though, showed real vulnerability last week against the run, when it allowed Oregon to set a school rushing record of 446 yards. Oregon's offensive line blew up big holes for its running backs, and it looked like WSU's front seven were a bit overmatched in size and strength. It was curious, though, a bit of an aberration, since Washington State's run defense had generally been solid up until last week.
The strength of Washington's defensive line, though, has definitely been rushing the passer this year, leading the Pac-10 in sacks with 26, and boasting two of the top three sack leaders in the Pac-10, two guys who don't even start for the Cougars, sophomore defensive ends, D.D. Acholonu and Isaac Brown. Acholonu and Brown are definitely Washington State's pass rush specialists and they'll be looking to hurt UCLA's already injured quarterbacks, or rattle possible replacement Ryan McCann.
What's interesting here is that UCLA's offensive line seems to excel at run blocking quite a bit more than pass blocking, while Washington State pass rushes quite a bit better than it defends the run. Troy Danoff, UCLA's starting senior center, could miss the game because of a sprained shoulder and ankle sprain, which would weaken UCLA's OL even more. They are expecting starting guard Shane Lehmann to return to action this week, which should give the OL a boost.
But this one ain't tough to call. Look at the signs: 1) UCLA's quarterback situation is in question 2) Washington State gave up humongous yards on the ground last week 3) Washington State has a great pass rush 4) UCLA run blocks better than it pass blocks, and 5) UCLA has DeShaun Foster.
What would you do if you were UCLA?
They could actually surprise everyone and come out passing. It would keep everyone in the stadium, including Washington State, off balance.But it would also risk UCLA going into an early tank like it did against Stanford. More than likely, even with Washington State stacking the box, look for UCLA to return to its offensive game plan of the first half of the season: Give the ball to Foster.
Advantage: UCLA, only because of Foster. Even if Foster doesn't run crazy, Washington State, after last week, will be so intent on shutting down Foster that it's defense will be probably be easy to move the ball on. Watch for Paus to start the game, and UCLA to go to Foster, but also try to keep Washington State honest with a modest passing game, and then, characteristically, the long ball. I think UCLA is ready to give the ball to Foster and let him pound it out against Washington State. With Foster this year, if you do that, even if you stop him early, he'll wear you down. And in doing so, UCLA eats up the clock, ala Oregon. This is the time of year when defenses start breaking down a bit and Washington State's looked like it was at the beginning of the fall last week. And that will be enough for UCLA's offense to get enough points. Also, while it has appeared this week that Scott McEwan might not be healthy enough to play due to his sprained ankle, if Paus falters, don't be surprised if McEwan makes a miraculous recovery on Saturday and is ready to step in.
It's far too difficult to keep an offfense like Washington State down two weeks in a row. UCLA had its wake-up call last week against Stanford, and is facing a Washington State team that's very similar to Stanford in many ways. In fact, it's most similar in the way that if UCLA doesn't come out with intensity, it could very well find itself down 28-7 at halftime again. The question in this game is not who UCLA's quarterback will be and how well he'll do, the question for UCLA is whether the defense we saw at the beginning of the year can still play at that same level. This is the game left on UCLA's schedule that they most easily could lose -- even compared to next week's game against Oregon at the Rose Bowl. There are so many factors here that make it feel like it could be Stanford, the Sequel. And I think, at times in this game, it will feel that way. But UCLA's defense isn't the same defense it was the last couple of years. While it might be more vulnerable in this game than it was in the first half of the year, the defense's veterans will step up and shut down Washington State's offense enough times to allow its offense to get on the field and eat up the clock. The score will, surprising, probably be lower than what you would expect, mainly because UCLA will try to eat up clock with it's running game.
Washington State 24