Washington State Preview

UCLA's beleaguered rush defense faces the Pac-10's leading rusher when it plays Washington State in Pullman, traditionally a place where the Bruins struggle. UCLA's offense will have to win this game, but can they?

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- UCLA travels to Pullman, Washington, to take on Washington State Saturday at 3:30. The game will be televised nationally by Fox Sports Net, with Barry Tompkins and Petros Papadakis in the booth.

-- UCLA, which is 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the Pac-10, is ranked No. 12 by AP and USA Today/Coaches. The Bruins are ranked for four straight weeks for the first time since the late 2001 season.

-- Washington State is 3-2 overall, and 0-2 in the conference. They've beaten Idaho (38-26), Nevada (55-22), and Grambling State (48-7), while losing their last two to Oregon State (33-44) and Stanford in Pullman (33-44). 

-- It's UCLA's first real road game, since it's first was against San Diego State. This is the first game where UCLA actually has to board a plane to play its game.  It's a bit of an ordeal, also, to travel to Pullman, having to fly and then drive a couple of hours before arriving.

-- Washington State is coached by Bill Doba, who is in his third year  as head coach in Pullman, with a record of 8-11.  Doba was an assistant coach at WSU for 14 years before taking over the head coaching job after Mike Price made his infamous move to Alabama. 

-- UCLA leads the series with Washington State, which dates back to 1928, by a 34-16-1 margin.  UCLA has, though, lost the last four games with the Cougars and seven of the last nine.  UCLA hasn't won in Pullman since the 1993 Rose Bowl season. 

-- Last year, Washington State beat the Bruins at the Rose Bowl, 31-29. It was quite a dramatic game for UCLA, which was 5-3 going into the contest. After having lost to nationally ranked Cal and Arizona State on the road, UCLA had gotten things on track with a 21-0 skunking of Stanford and were favored heavily over WSU. A win over Washington State was considered key to UCLA securing a successful season.  In that game, WSU's running back Jerome Harrison ran for 247 yards on 42 carries. UCLA played most of the game without the injured Maurice Drew and Marcedes Lewis.

-- UCLA's running back Maurice Drew is starting to get some Heisman Trophy attention, after his phenomenal performance last week on national television against Cal, when he gained 299 all-purpose yards, which is the second most in the NCAA this season.  Drew was named Pac-10 Player of the Week, leads the nation in punt returns, averaging 33.8 yards per return, and is tied for the national lead in scoring, averaging 14.4 points per game.

-- WSU's running back Jerome Harrison has some impressive stats and accomplishments himself. Harrison leads the Pac-10 in rushing, averaging 148 per game, and 5.9 yards per carry. He's the first Cougar running back to ever run for 100 yards in eight consecutive games, and is going after his ninth against the Bruins.  He has a chance to challenge the single-season rushing record at WSU, which is held by Rueben Mayes, when in 1984 he ran for 1,637 yards.  Harrison has rushed for 741 yards in five games this year. Last week against Stanford, Harrison ran for 218 yards on 29 carries and scored one touchdown.

-- The last time UCLA was ranked higher than its current No. 12 was in 2001 when it was 6-1 and ranked No. 9 by AP.  That week the Bruins traveled to Pullman and lost to Washington State, 20-14.

-- The weather could play a factor, as it always might in Pullman. It's expected to be in the 40s, with a 30% chance of rain for Saturday.

-- Both UCLA and Washington State are fairly banged up.  UCLA has five starters out - offensive guard Chris Joseph, defensive end Nikola Dragovic, free safety Chris Horton, defensive tackle Kevin Brown and wide receiver Junior Taylor.

-- WSU will be without perhaps its best defensive player, veteran middle linebacker Will Derting. Its elite wide receiver Jason Hill didn't play last week against Stanford and the Cougars lost its other starting receiver, Chris Jordan, early on against the Cardinal. Both are expected to play against UCLA, but it's questionable how effective they'll be.  WSU has also been without defensive tackle Ropati Pitouitua.  In practice this week, three other starters got banged up, while they are still expected to play.

WASHINGTON STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

Let's get some of the stats out of the way.  WSU is averaging over 500 yards of total offense per game, which is eighth in the nation.  They are averaging 202 yards on the ground per game, while UCLA is allowing 209 yards.

WSU has the league's leading rusher in senior Jerome Harrison (5-10, 205).

So it's pretty easy to figure that Washington State will try to run the ball on UCLA, like they did last season. 

It's even easier to surmise as much since there has been some question as to the effectiveness of its quarterback, and injuries have hit its receivers.

Sophomore Alex Brink (6-2, 202), the more mobile signal caller, won the job over junior Josh Swogger (6-5, 254), the pocket passer, in August. Swogger was thought to be the guy for the job until he faltered a bit in fall practice and Brink overtook him.  However, with WSU losing its last two games, its first two Pac-10 contests, in the last two weeks, there are some WSU observers questioning Brink. Brink did, in fact, have the best statistical game by a Pac-10 quarterback this season just a couple of weeks ago against Oregon State, when he threw for 531 yards, which was the fourth-best all-time in Pac-10 history. 

WSU's Jason Hill.

Head Coach Doba said this week he doesn't think it's the quarterback that was the problem with the passing game against Stanford last week (Brink was just 13 for 26 for 161 yards), but the fact that they were missing their two top receivers in junior Jason Hill (6-2, 208) and junior Chris Jordan (6-1, 210).  Hill didn't play against Stanford because of a quadricep injury he suffered against Oregon State. He was second in the country in receiving before that, and had 190 yards in a little more than a half before he had to leave the OSU game.  Hill is a very good athlete, one of those guys that seems to just be able to get the ball from a defender when it's up for grabs. 

Since he's been in Pullman, Jordan has always been considered a potential star, but has been slowed by various injuries, and still is.

Both are expected to play, but it's an issue just how effectively. If they are near 100% it gives Washington State its passing game. With Jordan being nicked up, sophomore Michael Bumpus (5-11, 186) has stepped in fairly well to pick up the slack. Bumpus actually bruised a knee in the Stanford game, too. Senior tight end Troy Bienemann (6-5, 252) is also one of the better tight ends in a conference that's pretty loaded with them.

UCLA's Jarrad Page & Justin Hickman.

Harrison will be, of course, UCLA's biggest challenge. You can still see nightmares of him running for big chunks of yardage in the Rose Bowl a year ago.  If the UCLA defensive line can limit Harrison, given the state they're in due to lack of depth and injury, it'd be quite an accomplishment.  While they've already lost two starters for the majority of the season, it severely hurts them that another, Brigham Harwell, sat out a great deal of last week's game against Cal, having re-injured a chronically-injured ankle. Whether Harwell is healthy was a very well-guarded secret this week at UCLA's football practice, which generally isn't a good sign. 

One interesting note about UCLA's beleaguered defensive line is the potential emergence of walk-on tackle, junior Brian Ruziecki (6-3, 292). Ruziecki came to UCLA as a shotputter and discus thrower, but gave up his track scholarship to try out for the football team.  Last week against Cal he only was in on a couple of plays, but looked pretty good, at least strong enough to hold his position, which would be a considerable accomplishment this year.

WSU's offensive line is decent, with some good experience. There is senior center Nick Mihlhauser (6-3, 292) and senior guard Norvell Holmes (6-2, 297) as the line's anchors. Luckily for WSU, the offensive line has been its most stable unit, with no injuries, starting all five players for every game so far this season. 

Advantage:  Washington State. Even though Washington State's offense is still a bit suspect since it really hasn't played a decent defense, UCLA's isn't probably much better than the ones it's faced.  And again, WSU's strength - its run game -- matches up directly with UCLA's primary weakness.  WSU likes to always keep its offense diversified, but don't expect WSU's coaches to be as obtuse as Cal's Jeff Tedford was last week and not run the ball on the UCLA defense until the Bruins prove then can stop it.  Again, UCLA's defensive coordinator Larry Kerr has his hands full. Hopefully, though, he'll go to a stacked box immediately this week, as opposed to allowing a 50-yard run from scrimmage to inspire it.  While WSU had that big passing game against Oregon State, UCLA has a better defensive secondary.  The Bruins need to get as many defenders up to the line as possible and not allow Harrison and the WSU OL to control the game, as Cal's running backs and OL did.  Make Brink beat you, which could be especially difficult if he doesn't have all of his weapons at receiver.  UCLA's defense has been keeping itself in games by being successful at two things - redzone defense and turnovers. The Bruins are #1 in the conference in turnover margin, and that has bailed them out repeatedly this season.  Washington's State's O went three-and-out too often last week against lowly Stanford, but should be better with the return of Hill and Jordan. 

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. WASHINGTON STATE'S DEFENSE

The reports out of Pullman are that the Cougars' defense has been the primary problem in the last two weeks.  It's been a combination of some injuries, but also a lack of intensity.

What probably has hurt the WSU defense the most is the loss of its best defensive player, senior middle linebacker Will Derting (6-0, 235). Derting has been out since injuring his MCL in the Oregon State game two weeks ago and isn't expected back for at least a couple more weeks. That's a huge loss for WSU, with Derting the leader of the defense, also leading the team in tackles in its first four games. 

Wazzu's Mkristo Bruce.

To make its injury matters worse, the team's leading tackler without Derting, junior weakside linebacker Steve Dildine (6-1, 229), missed some of practice this week with what is being described as a sore leg.  The WSU coaches have felt that the defense looked worn down generally and was trying to rest some key personnel this week, but it's still believed that Dildine is a bit nicked up.   Without Derting, and with Dildine potentially limited, the middle of Washington State's defense is suspect.  True freshman Greg Trent (5-10, 230) takes over the middle linebacker position, and another true freshman, Jason Stripling (5-11, 218) backs up Dildine.  Trent started last week against Stanford and hasn't been as overwhelmed as you might think, but there is still some considerable drop-off from Derting.

Washington State will have to rely on its second-best defensive player, junior defensive end Mkristo Bruce (6-6, 250) to hold it together for them. Bruce will get some post-season honors, using his size and quickness to tally 5 sacks so far this season, which leads the Pac-10.  The Cougars, behind Bruce, have been pretty staunch against the run, but also haven't faced an offense that ran the ball very well yet this season.  A familiar name, true freshman Fevaea'i Ahmu (6-1, 284) starts at one defensive tackle position. Sophomore Ropati Pitoitua (6-8, 299) who has been out with a broken leg, is expected to get some snaps for the first time this season on Saturday.  The coaching staff is high on the other tackle, sophomore Aaron Johnson (6-6, 310), but he and Ahmu make for a young interior d-line, one that UCLA's offensive line will target to exploit.

Washington State's secondary has actually done a bit better than expected so far this season. Going into the year it was inexperienced and thin, and it still is, but they're getting some solid play from a couple of returning starters, senior corner Alex Teems (5-11, 195) and junior strong safety Eric Frampton (5-11, 208).  It still is a unit that can be exploited by UCLA's passing game. 

It could be a big game for UCLA through the air. Last week, Stanford's quarterback Trent Edwards had a big day, throwing and scrambling.  UCLA's Drew Olson looks to have a similar type of experience, especially given that UCLA has considerably more targets than Stanford.  Washington State, with its injuries to its linebackers and fairly inexperienced back four, looks to have a hard time keeping down Marcedes Lewis, who won't see the type of defense he did last week against Cal.  Watch for UCLA to move Olson's launch point quite a bit to get away from Bruce and give him the ability to look downfield to Lewis. 

UCLA's Marcedes Lewis.

It could also be a big day for UCLA's offense on the ground.  UCLA's o-line did well run blocking last week, and it's just a matter of time before Drew busts a big rushing game.  Stanford ran for 232 yards last week, with Edwards being its leading rusher, and Edwards ain't no Drew.  Especially if the weather is a bit wet, UCLA will want to establish its running game. Stanford won the game last week basically by owning the clock, almost doubling WSU's time of possession. 

Special Teams definitely has some issues, with both UCLA and Washington State. Kyle Basler, WSU's punter is a good one and their field goal kicker, Loren Langley, has been consistent, within his range.  UCLA's freshman punter, Aaron Perez, has struggled, and in inclement weather, could be a real factor in this game. 

Maurice Drew's punt returns have been a huge part of UCLA's success this season. In fact, he's been critical in scoring, or setting up scores, when UCLA's offense has sputtered.  It will be interesting to see if WSU tries to punt away from him.

Advantage: UCLA. Not too much bodes well for Washington State's defense.  They're without their big playmaker, Derting.  They are reportedly a bit weary.  And they're facing a UCLA offense that really had good energy and an attitude this week, with a revitalized running game and one of the premier talents in college football running the ball in Drew. Plus, and probably the factor that makes UCLA's offense overwhelming for WSU, has been the consistency and efficiency of quarterback Drew Olson. He'll probably have the chance to pick apart WSU's defense with UCLA's short passing game, but also look for UCLA to try to go for a deep ball to Lewis down the middle of the field.  UCLA's offense, while it has gone into some funks in different games this season, looks to be on top of its game this week against a beaten up WSU defense.

Prediction:

Both teams will score. Perhaps the only thing limiting the amount of scoring in this game could be the weather.  UCLA's playbook keeps expanding, with Offensive Coordinator Tom Cable putting in new plays every week, and the new stuff has been very effective week after week. Watch for more of it Saturday, with some new wrinkles designed to take advantage of Washington State's inability to stay with UCLA's quickness in its receivers and running backs in the open field.  UCLA will try to win this game through its offense, through not just out-scoring Washington State but through ball control and owning the clock.  Everything points toward a huge game for Maurice Drew.  On the other side of the ball, look for Washington State's offense to be more productive than it was last week against Stanford, with the return of Hill and Jordan.  And expect Harrison to have another big day running the ball against UCLA's run defense.

But Washington State, even at home, in a place where UCLA traditionally struggles, just doesn't have enough to keep up with the Bruins.  UCLA shouldn't have to come from behind in this one, but it should be fairly close for most of the game. By the end, UCLA's running game will wear down the WSU defense and take over the game.

UCLA 39
Washington State  30


Bruin Report Online Top Stories