Washington State Preview

The Washington State Cougars come to town Saturday limping a bit, injured both physically and mentally. On both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, the matchups look very favorable for the Bruins...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- The Washington State Cougars come to Pasadenda Saturday to take on UCLA.  Kick-off is at 12:30. The game will not be televised live, but Fox Sports Net West 2 will re-broadcast the game Sunday at 12:00 p.m.

-- Washington State is 3-5 overall and 1-4 in the Pac-10, while UCLA is 5-3 and 3-2.

-- Washington State has dropped three games in a row. Last week they were trounced by USC, 42-12. In that game, WSU's offense gained only 156 total yards.

-- It's the 51st meeting between the two schools, dating back to 1928. UCLA leads the series, 34-15-1.  However, WSU has won the last three meetings between the two teams. Last year in Pullman, Washington State won, 31-13.

-- Washington State is coached by Bill Doba, who is in his second year with the Cougars, with an overall record of 13-8.  Doba was an assistant with WSU for 14 seasons before taking over when Mike Price left for Alabama (by way of some Alabama strip bars).

-- Washington State is a fairly young team, with only 9 seniors in its two deep, and 35 of its top 44 players underclassmen.

-- WSU's season took a big downward turn when starting quarterback Josh Swogger broke a bone in his foot three weeks ago against Stanford.  Before Swogger went down, WSU was 3-3, having only lost those three games by an average of 5 points. WSU has lost the two games without Swogger, by an average of 24 points. Swogger is out for the remainder of the season.

-- The Cougars aren't faring well statistically. In the Pac-10, the are ranked 8th or worse in 6 out of the 8 major categories.

-- UCLA receiver Craig Bragg is just five pass receptions away from setting the UCLA all-time reception record.  He has 175 on his career, just four behind Kevin Jordan's mark of 179. 

-- UCLA has played a school-record 12 true freshmen this season. 

-- UCLA is having its best offensive season since 1998 statistically. It is averaging 6.42 yards per play, the best since 1998's 6.81. It's averaging 445.5 yards per game, the highest since 1998's 487.25.  And it's scoring on average 31.6 points per game, also its best since 1998 when it averaged 39.7.

-- UCLA running back and punt returner Maurice Drew ranks second in the nation in all-purpose yards, averaging 179.75 per game.

-- UCLA's shutout of Stanford last week was its first since defeating Northeast Louisiana 44-0 in 1996.  The last time UCLA blanked a Pac-10 opponent was in 1987, when it beat Stanford 49-0.

-- Some weather forecasts are calling for rain Saturday.

WASHINGTON STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

Coming off an unpredictable performance against Stanford, the question for the UCLA defense is: Can it do it again? Or was that a fluke?

Well, if there is an offense in the Pac-10 that UCLA hasn't played that the Bruins have the best chance of dominating the way they did Stanford last week, Washington State would be it.

Washington State, overall, is a team that is very young, that has also been beset with some injuries. There are only two seniors starting on offense, and four freshmen.  They've lost two tight ends to injury, even though one has returned, but hasn't played extensively.  They've lost two two running backs, both their starter and second-stringer. The second-stringer saw some action last week against USC, but not much.

UCLA's C.J. Niusulu and Bruce Davis.

And of course, WSU is without their starting quarterback, Josh Swogger, who then lost for the season three games ago to a broken foot. 

Playing with such young players and with injuries would devastate most offenses. And while the Cougars have hung in there a bit offensively, it definitely has taken its toll.

In its first six games with Swogger, the WSU offense averaged 383 yards per game. In the last two without him, just 238.

Statistics are telling, of course, but that also doesn't tell the entire picture.  Last week WSU went up against USC's defense, which kept that statistic down.  But also, on the other hand, the loss of Swogger, while it's significant, wasn't as if this team had lost Troy Aikman.  Swogger isn't Heisman material, and the Washington State offense wasn't exactly explosive with him.  But his loss has definitely made an average offense worse.

Which is very good news for a UCLA defense that's had a tough year.  If you're a defense that's been struggling all season, and then put together one good game, as it did against Stanford, your next game is critical. If you put together another good game, it could boost the confidence of your defense considerably, which would be critical for UCLA heading into the big game against Oregon in Eugene.  The defense would start to actually believe that they're pretty good, and they actually could be.  In football, confidence is like a 12th player on the field.

So, along comes Washington State's offense. For the UCLA defense, which has struggled to contain the run all year, it's a godsend. WSU is averaging just 99 yards per game on the ground, second worst in the Pac-10.  For a defense like UCLA with a redshirt freshman making just his second start at cornerback, facing an offense that's only averaged 183 yards in the air in its last two games with its new quarterback is a beautiful thing.

The new quarterback is redshirt freshman Alex Brink (6-2, 204).  Brink is struggling, and understandably so. You have to give the kid credit for even making a go of it, an inexperienced redshirt freshman with limited knowledge of the offense and a limited amount of physical ability.  Brink has just okay arm strength, is pretty accurate with his throws generally, but has looked fairly nervous in the pocket (Again, understandably so). Brink, actually, though, is more mobile that Swogger and can scramble. With Washington State being a throw-first-run-second type of offense, the success of its offense is completely dependent on the efficiency and effectiveness of its quarterback.

Watch for true freshman Gary Rogers (6-6, 228) to get his first shot at quarterback this weekend.

Probably the player having the best season on the Cougar team is sophomore wide receiver Jason Hill (6-0, 198).  Hill is a shifty one, with good quickness and ability to create after the catch. Stepping up, though, has been a true freshman receiver familiar to UCLA fans, Michael Bumpus (5-11, 174).  Bumpus has led the team in receptions the last two games, and has shown himself to be an excellent punt returner. A potential big gun coming into this season was sophomore Chris Jordan (6-1, 205), but he's been hampered lately by injury. The report on him is that he felt better this week and could make the trip.

WSU has also been hurt by injury at tight end. Their season starter is junior Troy Bienemann (6-4, 245) but he's been banged up and has seen limited action.  Their second stringer is Cody Body (6-8, 251) who has also been out, but is expected to play this week. Sophomore Jesse Taylor (6-3, 242) has taken over most of the tight end duties, but he hasn't had much of an impact, catching just one pass so far this season. Taking away the tight end option has particularly hurt the Washington State offense, which relies on its quarterback spreading out his receptions to a number of receivers.

Cougar quarterback Alex Brink.

At running back, it's more of the same story for WSU - inexperience, youth and injury.  Their starter, senior Chris Bruhn (6-3, 220), has sat out the last two weeks, one reason why the Cougar running game has been so anemic.  He did practice this week, though, and is expected to see some action.  The guy they were hoping to really step up this season was junior Allen Thompson (5-10, 209), but he's been hampered by a shoulder injury.  Thompson's had a tough career, basically missing the last two seasons because of injury. The main ball-carrying responsibilities have fallen to junior Jerome Harrison (5-9, 192), who has started the last two games and will most likely start against UCLA. Harrison, a JC transfer, isn't horrible, having some good quicks that have enabled him to pick up some tough yards in traffic, but he's not a huge weapon that would worry UCLA's defensive coaches.

Washington State generally has a solid offensive line, one that has, amazingly, avoided too many injuries this year.  Three starters returned from last season, including their two mammoth bookend tackles,  senior Calvin Armstrong (6-8, 322) and senior Sam Lightbody (6-9, 320).  The center, junior Nick Millhauser (6-3, 286) is also considered a good one.

UCLA's defensive front had easily its best game of the season last week against Stanford and will be hyped to repeat it.  Sophomore defensive tackle Kevin Brown had the game of his two-year UCLA career, and UCLA got its best play of the season on the interior from him and C.J. Niusulu.  Watch for Nikola Dragovic, the redshirt freshman defensive end to possibly get an increased number of plays this week instead of Kyle Morgan. Dragovic moved ahead of Williams Snead on the depth chart, and his quickness has enabled him to push Morgan for the starting job. He had a nice game last week against Stanford.

Of course, though, UCLA couldn't go a week without an injury to its defense, losing back-up middle linebacker Dan Nelson to a broken clavicle. Call it either bad luck or good, but it's the same week UCLA gets back true #2 middle linebacker, senior Tim Warfield, who's been recovering from a knee injury the entire season. 

If you can project that Justin London, UCLA's start middle linebacker, will be even healthier and better than he was last week against Stanford, he should have a big day Saturday.  He and Spencer Havner played easily their best game of the season together.  The scheme seemed a bit tweaked, keeping the linebackers more in position rather than blitzing and potentially out of position, which enabled them to keep the Stanford ball carriers in front of them.

Trey Brown, the redshirt freshman corner, raised everyone's expectations last week after having a great day in both pass coverage and run support.  Remember, though, he is a freshman and Washington State should be trying to pick on him Saturday.  Cornerback Matt Clark had one of his best games as a Bruin last week and has continued to get better, to the point that he's deserving of post-season honors. 

On top of that, the safeties have been playing very well in recent games, vastly helped by the improved play of senior free safety Ben Emanuel.

Wouldn't it be absurd if the UCLA defense turning it around this season was mostly due to defensive coordinator Larry Kerr being less aggressive in his blitzing scheme? Wouldn't it be even more absurd if you could ultimately attribute UCLA's defense improving merely because Kerr moved to the coach's booth in the press box where he could see the field better?

You can bet, though, that whomever Kerr has blitzing, whether it's linebackers, safeties or corners, he will try to put pressure on Brink. Washington State has been poor at protecting its quarterback all season. Last week, even without blitzing, UCLA's defensive front put some decent pressure on Stanford's Trent Edwards

Advantage:  Even.  While WSU's offense just isn't very good with Brink, and banged up on top of it, it's just too premature to give an advantage to a UCLA defense that played pretty poorly for seven games before last week. Mostly they have to prove that holding Stanford to 83 yards rushing wasn't a fluke. And even if they repeated it again this week against, Washington State, it could still be a fluke, since WSU runs the ball so poorly.  Again, watch for Kerr to blitz his safeties like he did successfully last week against Stanford, and keep his linebackers home.  Also, look for some now more-confident UCLA linemen, like Dragovic and Brigham Harwell, to continue to improve in pressuring the quarterback.  While it's probably too much to expect UCLA's defense to perform like it did last week, the confidence it gained in the Stanford game could take it a long way against Washington State.  WSU turns the ball over quite a bit, 25 times in 8 games. UCLA's secondary has been excellent at intercepting the ball this season, so with inexperienced Brink, you can probably expect a couple of big turnovers through the air.  Washington State has scored early in every game they've been competitive. So, if the Cougars aren't in this early, don't expect them to be late.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. WASHINGTON STATE'S DEFENSE

It's been six weeks since UCLA has faced a defense as poor as Washington State's.  Not since Washington, when UCLA racked up 546 total yards and 424 yards on the ground.

WSU's defense isn't much better.  In fact, they're worse statistically, allowing 371 yards per game while Washington is giving up 367.

While Washington is pretty bad against the ground while not bad against the pass, Washington State is pretty bad against both. 

Again, you can probably attribute it mostly to inexperience, youth and injuries.  WSU's defense isn't near as youthful as its offense, but it returned only two starters from a year ago.  They've lost two starting defensive tackles to injury. Both have returned, but aren't 100%.  WSU is also juggling its defensive backs, trying to mask injuries there.

Washington State linebacker Will Derting.

The best defensive player for the Cougars is an All-Pac-10 type linebacker in junior Will Derting (6-0, 223). Derting, in the off-season, made the switch from outside linebacker to the middle linebacker position and has been doing well, leading the team in tackles and tackles for loss.  The linebackers, overall, have been solid, with sophomore linebacker Scott Davis (5-11, 225) someone to watch.

Upfront, as stated above, the Cougars have been adapting to the injury bug. Senior defensive tackle Steve Cook (6-3, 290) sprained a knee early in the season and is still nursing it.  An enormous freshman they were very high on, Ropati Pitoitua (6-8, 269) started the first couple of games but then had one of those pesky high-ankle sprains (Didn't only Bruins get those?), and he's coming off the bench now.  A redshirt freshman, Aaron Johnson (6-6, 303) has been filling in for both. 

The defensive ends have, amazingly, been stable, and both have played well. Sophomore Mkristo Bruce (6-6, 240) has ten sacks on the season and his counterpart, junior Adam Braidwood (6-5, 264) has eight.

Teams, as you would expect, have been running successfully through the middle of the Washington State line, which, so far this season, has been the speciality of the UCLA offense.

Even though UCLA center Mike McCloskey's status for the game is unknown at this point, his back-up Robert Chai is very worthy.  You can expect UCLA to try to exploit the Cougars' weakness on the interior and be very dedicated to running between the tackles.  

UCLA running back Maurice Drew hasn't been getting as many reps as he did earlier in the season, since he was getting pretty banged up.  Freshman Chris Markey has stepped up and taken over some of those reps and been very successful. Senior running back Manuel White completes the three-headed tailback monster. Watch for the tailback position to have a, well, monster day, with plenty of running room through the middle of the Washington State line. Having been relieved of the bulk of the tailback carries, Drew is in better physical shape this week than he's been in a month, so you can probably expect him to break off a couple of his signature big runs.

UCLA running back Maurice Drew.

Luckily, though, this is not the UCLA offense of old, the one in which opposing defenses would defend with a stacked box.  UCLA hasn't seen much box stacking in recent weeks since its passing game has been particularly formidable.

So, Washington State's troubled defensive backfield will be very challenged.  One starting cornerback, junior Alex Teems  95-11, 176), is questionable, with a neck strain.  While they haven't been to beset with injuries this season, they've just simply haven't been very good, with only one returning starter in senior cornerback Karl Paymah (6-0, 200).  With UCLA's main threat, wide receiver Craig Bragg, back to being close to 100%, coupled with the emergence of tight end Marcedes Lewis and senior receiver Tab Perry, UCLA's receivers look to be too much for WSU's secondary.

All it takes is a solid, steady game from quarterback Drew Olson, which, more or less, Olson has delivered every week.  Olson has incrementally improved every game, with his throws getting more accurate, and his decision-making better.  This could potentially be his biggest game of the year.  UCLA's offensive line will be challenged by the pass rush of WSU's defensive ends, but there hasn't been a pass rush this season that you could say got the best of UCLA's pass blocking. 

Advantage: UCLA. The Bruins' offense should clearly dominate this game. It would be a surprise if they didn't put up a lot of points, and it would be a surprise if they didn't eat up the clock with long drives featuring their ground game.  UCLA's best defense is their offense - especially if UCLA's offense can keep its defense off the field.  Watch for UCLA to be very dedicated to running the ball, only passing if Washington State forces it to.  Washington State could experiment with bringing more players into the box, but wouldn't want to risk it too often, especially with the unguardable Marcedes Lewis, who will probably line up in various positions throughout the day.  But really, the problem for Washington State will be, even if they're dedicated to stopping UCLA's running game, they more than likely will be unable to.  UCLA has routinely doubled the average yards that opposing defenses are giving up on the ground per game, so you can probably expect UCLA to come close to a 300-yard rushing day. 

Prediction:  It's a great match-up for UCLA, coming at a very good time.  UCLA has gone through a number of games that looked like tough matchups, and generally proved to be so. Washington State looks to be exactly what UCLA needs at this point, a team that doesn't run the ball well against UCLA's usually poor running defense; and a team that doesn't defend the run well against UCLA's powerful running game.  WSU will go to the air, and UCLA will go to the ground, but you can probably expect UCLA's running game to produce quicker- and bigger-hitting plays on the ground that WSU through the air.  UCLA's defense will be jacked up after last week. Many of UCLA's defensive players have chips on their shoulder, and want to prove that they're not as bad as they've looked this season and that the Stanford game wasn't a fluke. While that might be tough against Oregon and USC in its next two games, this would be the week for them to gain a bit more confidence.  UCLA running so much could keep the score modest. Washington State's punter, Kyle Basler (6-3, 231) is a good one, and is good at keeping offenses pinned back in their own territory, which could also force UCLA to gain more yardage on the ground, eat more clock, and keep the score down a bit. If it rains, and some weather forecasts are predicting it will, that could keep UCLA grounded as well.

UCLA 38
Washington State  17


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