-- UCLA goes on the road for the first time this season, traveling to Seattle to take on the Washington Huskies in the conference opener for both teams. Kick-off is at 4:00 p.m., with the game being televised nationally by TBS, with Ron Thulin and Charles Davis providing commentary.
-- UCLA is 2-0 on the season, having beaten Utah, 31-10, and Rice 26-16. The Bruins had a bye last week. They still haven't cracked either of the top 25 polls, currently 28th in the USA Today Poll and 29th in AP.
-- Washington is 2-1 on the season, beating San Jose State in its opener, 35-29, losing at Oklahoma, 37-20, and then beating Fresno State last week, 21-20. It's the first time since 2003 the Huskies have won two of the first three games of their season.
-- In fact, as most know, the Washington program, traditionally one of the powers in the Pac-10, has been going through a considerable slump. In 2003 it went 6-6, and then in 2004 it went 1-10, and its head coach, Keith Gilbertson was fired. Ty Willingham, the former Notre Dame and Stanford coach, was hired, and last season the team went 2-9. Between 2004 and 2005, the Huskies endured a 2-18 slide where it suffered streaks of 8 losses and 6 losses. So, Husky fans are now fairly ecstatic that the team is 3-2 over its last five games dating back to last season.
-- UCLA has had the UW's number of late, having won eight of the last nine Husky-Bruin matchups. That run has enabled UCLA to take an advantage in the all-time series, 35-28-2.
-- Last year the game was in Pasadena, and UCLA needed a fourth-quarter comeback to win 21-17. Two years ago in Seattle, Maurice Drew ran for 322 yards and five touchdowns as the Bruins needed to come from behind again to win 37-31. In 2003, then 18th-ranked Washington built a 16-7 halftime lead, but UCLA came back once again to win 46-16. In 2002, UCLA won 34-24. In 2001, DeShaun Foster ran for 301 yards and UCLA won, 35-13. You have to go all the way back to 2000 for the last Washington win, when the Huskies beat the Bruins, 35-28. But UCLA had beaten Washington three times previous to that. In other words, it's been a pretty lopsided series as of late.
-- Washington Coach Ty Willingham was hired in December of 2004 after being let go from Notre Dame after a controversial three seasons. Willingham had been winning intermittently at Stanford (which is an accomplishment), when he was hired at Notre Dame and immediately got the Fighting Irish following excited when he went 10-3 in his first season in 2002. But he couldn't duplicate it, falling to 5-7 and 6-5 in the next two seasons and was shown the door. It's been asserted in the media that the hook was too quick. At Stanford, Willingham had four winning seasons among his seven there, winning the Pac-10 in 1999, and earning Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors. He's known for his stoicism, and conservative play.
-- Washington has gone through a recent history of hiring coaches who are Pac-10 re-treads. Willingham coached at Stanford before his current stint at Washington. The coach he replaced at Washington, Keith Gilbertson, had previously been the head coach at Cal.
-- In his career, Willingham is 3-5 against UCLA.
-- There are many UCLA-Washington ties. The most known is that UCLA Head Coach Karl Dorrell spent a season as the Huskies' offensive coordinator in 1999 before being hired as a wide receiver coach for the Denver Broncos. But Dorrell also coached with Washington defensive coordinator Kent Baer at ASU, and served on the Colorado staff with current Husky tight ends coach Bob Simmons. A few other UCLA and Washington assistants served on various other staffs together in the past. UCLA receivers coach D.J. McCarthy was a wide receiver at Washington and was a member of the 1991 Husky National Championship team.
-- Washington plays its game in Husky Stadium, which commonly sells out its 72,500 seats, even when the team isn't good. In fact, when the team went 2-9 last season, Washington had the second biggest attendance among Pac-10 schools, only behind USC. Husky Stadium is traditionally a tough place to play for visiting teams, with the crowd generating some considerable noise, but also because of the swirling winds, since the Stadium is open-ended, sitting right on the banks of Puget Sound.
-- UCLA has won its last five Pac-10 openers, and Karl Dorrell's Bruins are 3-0 in openers, each win coming against Washington.
-- UCLA is 14-0 when it wins the turnover battle under Dorrell.
-- Following the trip to Washington, the Bruins will have four remaining road games, all against top-25-ranked teams that went to bowl games last year: Oregon, Notre Dame, Cal and ASU.
-- By NCAA rules, UCLA will travel with 64 players to Seattle.
WASHINGTON'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
Overall, the impression you get when you watch Washington or review their two-deep is really how their talent is still down compared to a normal Washington team.
There just isn't a great deal of stand-out talent.
But the program is feeling good about itself for the first time in a long time after it beat Fresno State last week to go 2-1.
So, while there may not be a great deal of talent, it'd be foolish to under-estimate the emotion of a team feeling good about itself in an effort to try to regain the program's prestige, playing at home in the conference opener against a team that is favored. This is a big game for Washington; if it wins it, it will be possibly the program's biggest win in a few years.
There probably isn't a player who embodies the situation of Washington's program more than its quarterback, senior Isaiah Stanback (6-3, 215). He's had a rollercoaster ride of a career at UW, being hailed as a real talent but struggling considerably at times. He is one of the best all-around athletes that you could ever imagine - with great size, and with sprinter-level speed (he's run a 10.4 100 meters, and placed fifth in the Pac-10). He has a strong arm, but an erratic one. He has played very confidently at times in the last couple of seasons, but also been racked with insecurity, as you could expect from a quarterback who went 2-18 over 20 games.
But having guided the Huskies to this 2-1 record, all reports are that Stanback is gaining considerable confidence, which is something to be wary of if you're a Bruin fan.
Stanback's most dangerous aspect is easily his ability to run. It is clearly Washington's biggest offensive threat. Stanback has gained 243 yards in three games and is averaging 5.1 yards per attempt (which also figures in yards lost on sacks). Last week against Fresno State, he made very good decisions on when to tuck and take off, and he burned the Bulldogs at some big moments in the game, running for 91 yards to lead Washington on the day. But it's just not Stanback's scrambling; Washington utilizes a spread attack quite a bit, and Stanback runs out of it quite often. Once he gets past the line of scrimmage and is able to turn his shoulders up field, he can really turn on jets, and with his size, he's very hard to bring down. He's averaging 70 yards per game, and that's good enough to be ranked 57th in the country as a rusher.
|Husky running back Louis Rankin.|
Stanback has improved throwing the ball also. With his strong arm he has over his career tended to force throws into coverage, and he also generally isn't a greatly accurate passer. But he's gotten better, is making better decisions and putting a little more touch on the ball. He isn't among the top ten in passing efficiency among Pac-10 quarterbacks, but even so, he's still a better passer than UCLA saw against either Utah or Rice. Couple that with his scary ability to run the ball and you have easily the most dangerous offensive threat UCLA's defense has faced so far this season.
Probably the second biggest threat for UCLA's defense is Washington's junior running back Louis Rankin (6-1, 205). Rankin has good size, but also has some very good speed to turn the corner. He's averaging 7.7 yards per carry and really took it to Oklahoma's defense two weeks ago, gaining 112 yards and averaging 6.6. yards per carry against the Sooners. And curiously, Rankin isn't Washington's starting tailback. That's senior Kenny James (5-10, 215), who has seemingly been at Washington for about 8 years. James is the smaller, shiftier one and not bad himself. Washington likes to keep its tailbacks fresh and shuttles in James and Rankin throughout the game.
Stanback has run the ball more than either Rankin or James. Between the three of them, Washington is averaging 210 yards per game on the ground, first in the Pac-10 and 16th nationally.
Washington's passing game isn't stellar, by comparison. It has some decent but not standout receivers, led by junior Anthony Russo (5-11, 180). Senior Sonny Shackleford (6-2, 180) has also been solid, and the Husky faithful are getting a little excited over junior Marcel Reece (6-3, 240), the JC transfer who looks more like a tight end. Washington had an issue with dropping balls against Fresno State last week, killing a few key drives in that game.
The tight ends, actually, aren't a big threat. Sophomore Johnnie Kirton (6-3, 270) is serviceable, and catches the ball fairly well for a blocking tight end.
Washington's passing game becomes a real weapon when Stanback is rolling or threatening to run, drawing the defense's secondary. When Stanback is out in the flat improvising, either threatening to run or throw to a receiver out of his pattern, that's where Washington's passing offense gets dangerous.
But it's all dependent on the threat of Stanback running. Before, Stanback tended to try to force throws too often. Now he's realizing that he's better off tucking and running. That has proceeded to open up the passing game more and Stanback has been better throwing on the run in this season's first three games than he was last season.
Washington's offensive line doesn't have a standout talent, having lost five of their top eight offensive linemen from last year. Junior tackle Chad Macklin (6-8, 300) could be the line's best. On the other side is redshirt freshman Ben Ossai (6-6, 300) and the two of them make for some very big bookend tackles, which could make for an interesting match-up with UCLA's smaller - but considerably quicker - defensive ends.
Washington's O is definitely a good test for UCLA's defense, in so many ways and matchups. UCLA's defense has the rep of not being able to defend against the run, which it earned last year. So far this season, however, it's done well defending the run, allowing just 82 yards per game, which is #1 in the Pac-10 and 29th in the country.
Now, is this a case that UCLA's rushing defense is actually good, and much improved? Or is it a case that UCLA hasn't faced a decent opponent yet?
It probably is a little bit of both. UCLA's rushing defense is more than likely improved (we say "more than likely" since the jury is clearly still out). New defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker has instilled a new toughness and attention to detail that has been clearly evident in UCLA's first two games. Far less missed tackles and missed assignments.
However, if you watch the tapes of UCLA's first two games, there are still questions about UCLA's defensive line. Many times against Utah and Rice, the defensive tackles were getting pushed back. It wasn't necessarily exploited since Utah and Rice tended to run outside with their spread options. Washington does utilize a spread, and options out of it, but it also goes to more conventional formations like the I, and it can pound the ball between the tackles. While Washington is by no means a smash-mouth running offense, it is easily the biggest challenge for UCLA's rushing defense yet this season, both outside and inside the tackles.
|UCLA's Kevin Brown pursues UW's Kenny James.|
UCLA junior defensive tackle Kevin Brown has moved into the starting lineup for this game. While the UCLA coaches try to play it down, saying that it really doesn't matter who starts, UCLA shuttles in many DLs, etc., it does signify that Brown might be finally making his way all the way back from the ankle injury that sidelined him for the entire 2005 season. In fall practice, he didn't look like the same player who ended the season so promisingly in 2004, but he's looked better and better in practice and has done well in UCLA's first two games. A healthy Brown, who is capable of playing the way he did in 2004, is key to UCLA's interior DL, and really its entire defense. Without him, UCLA is considerably undersized at DT, with Kenneth Lombard and Chase Moline both in the 6-1 and 260-pound range. Brigham Harwell is behind Lombard on the depth chart, but he played alongside Brown quite a bit in practice and Harwell looked like a guy who wanted to earn starter's playing time this week.
With UCLA's defensive ends, it will truly be the classic match-up of size versus speed. UCLA's Justin Hickman, Bruce Davis and Nikola Dragovic are good coming off the edge and running to the ball, and it will be interesting to see if UW's big offensive tackles can detain them with their size.
UCLA's linebackers are the no-name unit of the team, but they've been playing solidly so far. Reggie Carter, the redshirt freshman who won the starting weakside spot, will get in more plays against Washington's more standard offense than he did against the funky spreads of Utah and Rice.
Where UCLA clearly has an advantage against Washington's offense is in the match-up between the Bruins' secondary and Washington's passing game. UCLA has allowed only 153 yards through the air on average in its first two games, while Washington has gained only 166. UCLA has done it partially because it hasn't faced a good passing team to date, but also because its secondary has been very good. Except for one series against Rice where it allowed a few open completions, UCLA's secondary basically shut down the passing games of Rice and Utah. Corners Rodney Van and Trey Brown have both been good in coverage, and UCLA's two safeties, Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes, have both played at potential All-Pac-10 levels.
Advantage: Even. You might think this isn't giving UCLA's defense enough credit, and you could be right. UCLA's defense is #1 in the Pac-10 right now and 15th in the nation (when's the last time you could say that?). It's just a matter of it being uncertain whether this is more the case that UCLA hasn't faced a good offense yet. While Washington isn't a great offense by any means, it is the best UCLA will have faced yet this season, and it does present its biggest test so far.
The real test for UCLA is going to be defending the run against Washington, stopping Stanback and UW's running backs. So much is dependent, for Washington, on Stanback making good decisions, not throwing into coverage and recognizing when to run. It will also be whether UCLA can shut down Washington's running game tackle-to-tackle. Running the ball is Washington's offensive strength so far this season and it's still inconclusive whether rushing defense is still UCLA's weakness. Because of that alone it makes this an even match-up.
Washington - and Stanback - have been prone to turnovers. Stanback commits them through the air and has lost a few fumbles in his day when he's running with the ball. In practice this week, UCLA dedicated quite a bit of time to drills emphasizing turnover-creation on defense.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. WASHINGTON'S DEFENSE
This is where the talent level drops off considerably from the traditional amount of talent we're used to seeing from a Washington team.
Washington's defense doesn't have much.
We called UCLA's linebackers no-name, and you could definitely label Washington's entire defense the same.
It's interesting, too, since Washington returned eight starters from last season. I guess it really is a matter of that old joke: The good news is that there are eight returning starters; the bad news is that there are eight returning starters.
Washington's defense has allowed, on average, 28 points a game so far this season, and 374 yards, which gets it ranked eighth in the Pac-10. It is dead last in the Pac-10 in pass defense, allowing 245 yards per game, which is 100th in the nation.
And that has come against two teams that are poor passing teams, Oklahoma and Fresno State, and then San Jose State, which torched UW for 323 yards through the air.
|Washington DE Greyson Gunheim.|
Washington's run defense hasn't been particularly stellar either. It's allowing 129 yards per game on the ground, but that's a bit skewered since San Jose State only ran for 50 yards. Oklahoma gained 181 and Fresno State 157. Both Oklahoma and Fresno State had huge holes to run through.
And, probably, Washington's defensive strength is its defensive line. Washington fans have been waiting for junior defensive end Greyson Gunheim (6-5, 265) to emerge from his solid play to stardom. Junior defensive tackles Wilson Afoa (6-3, 290) and Jordan Reffett (6-6, 295) are loads, and there isn't a drop-off with senior Donny Mateaki (6-5, 285). The line is pretty good - big and strong - and should give UCLA's interior OL all it can handle.
But UW's back seven aren't particularly noteworthy. Senior strong safety C.J. Wallace (6-0, 210) is earning some praise since he leads the Pac-10 in tackles, but the secondary has struggled. Curiously, a lot was made out of former safety, senior Dashon Goldson (6-2, 205), making the move to corner, but he's been splitting time with senior Matt Fountaine (5-11, 180), with neither having distinguished themselves. Junior Roy Lewis (5-11, 187) is hyped as their best cover guy.
The linebackers are definitely a question. UW lost two starters here, and the guys they've plugged in are under-sized and not considered particular talents. Senior Scott White (6-1, 235) is probably the most talented, but he's had an inconsistent career. Senior Tahj Bohmar (6-2, 225) is in the middle. Former Hart High standout, junior Dan Howell (6-1, 225), didn't play last week after his father passed away. White's back-up, sophomore Chris Stevens (6-0, 215), has made some plays.
UCLA's offense is looking to put together the two elements of its offense in this game. It passed the ball well but didn't run well against Utah. It then ran the ball well but didn't pass well against Rice. Washington's defense offers an opportunity for bpth.
|UCLA receiver Brandon Breazell.|
Perhaps UCLA's best offensive opportunity is going to be throwing the ball against Washington, with UCLA's deep stable of receivers. Heck, its standout true freshman, Terrence Austin, can't even beat out two walk-ons, Andrew Baumgartner and Matt Willis. But there is Junior Taylor, Marcus Everett, Brandon Breazell and Gavin Ketchum there too. And then at tight end, UCLA has two good receiving tight ends in sophomores Ryan Moya and Logan Paulsen. That's a great deal of bodies and hands to collect Ben Olson passes.
Olson started off the season - and his career -- against Utah looking like a Heisman candidate. Then he looked like a rookie against Rice, mostly because of the multiple fumbles. Which Ben Olson will step on to the field at Husky Stadium Saturday will greatly determine the outcome of the game. We've maintained that all Olson needs, even though he's still very inexperienced, is UCLA's offense to merely provide him time to throw and he'll pick apart a defense. They did it against Utah, but didn't do it against Rice. So you can bet that pass protection will be a huge priority in this game. Watch for UCLA to throw quickly like it did against Utah, with quick slants and curls, and with Olson throwing from quick drops.
But you can probably also expect UCLA to throw over the top more in this game. It didn't attempt it much against Rice, and in shortening up its offense it gave Rice's defense the chance to play a smaller field, and they took advantage of it.
Washington's defense hasn't put a great deal of pressure on quarterbacks in its first three games, but you can bet it will be studying the UCLA/Rice tape to see how it can disguise pressure on Olson. UCLA coaches said that Rice's defense brought pressure from places it didn't anticipate. For the sake of UCLA's offense, it'd better hope it's better at picking up blitzes this week.
The jury is still out on whether UCLA's offense will be considered one with a good running game. Two weeks ago against Rice it ran for close to 300 yards, but again, it was Rice. Texas ran for 330 yards against Rice's defense last week. It was encouraging, though, to see UCLA's front line open up some huge holes for UCLA's running backs. UCLA center Robert Chai had a much-improved game against Rice, and he's critical to the UCLA running game doing well, especially since the UW interior DL is its defensive strength. Watch for UCLA to expand its running game playbook this week to try to surprise Washington.
UCLA's offense also struggled against Rice to score from the red zone. The team did quite a bit of red-zone offensive work this week in practice, and it looked like it had incorporated new plays to confuse Washington's D when it's up against its own goal line.
Advantage: UCLA. The Bruins' offense is still a bit of a mystery, but UW's defense isn't: It just isn't very good. So we'll go with the less known quantity here.
You'd have to think that Washington will try to limit UCLA's running game and make Ben Olson beat them. Olson, in just his third start of his career, coming off a mediocre game, will be playing in an environment he's never faced - a very loud stadium on the road. You can probably expect Washington's defense to try to emulate Rice's from two weeks ago, lining up people at different spots on the field and bringing pressure from all over, to try to rattle Olson.
Again, the responsibility of UCLA's offense being effective will lie in the coaches' game plan to counteract Washington's pressure and the players' ability to pull it off. Again, if you give Olson time, he's just too accurate of a passer not to pick apart a defense, especially one with a suspect secondary like Washington.
Washington would love to make UCLA have to sustain long drives, eat up a lot of clock, keep the score low, and let the pressure and the environment make UCLA falter offensively and stay out of the end zone. UCLA will have to go up top and try for some quick strikes, at least to keep Washington honest.
Again, it could come down to turnovers. UCLA has had fumble-itis, and while they got lucky against Utah and didn't lose them, it hurt them considerably against Rice.
Special teams has grown into a considerable concern for UCLA. The Bruins can't find a punt returner to catch the ball securely. Dorrell said he's going with true freshman Terrence Austin and sophomore Ryan Graves. Austin has been shaky so far, and Graves is new to it, at least in actual games. He's been pretty solid catching punts in practice for two years and he's going to get his chance this week. UCLA also hasn't been good in kick-off coverage, and hopes to improve this week. Washington has a good punter, Sean Douglas, who is averaging 48 yards a punt, and a good place-kicker, Michael Braunstein, who is perfect on field goals and extra points so far this season.
The talent level favors UCLA. But so many intangibles favor the Huskies: having a winning record for the first time in almost two years, faced with probably their most important game in that time, at home. Many UCLA fans attributed UCLA's disappointing performance against Rice two weeks ago to being emotionally flat, that it was their "let down" game. If UCLA hopes to beat a jacked-up Washington team on Saturday it better not have another "let down" game. UCLA coaches this week in practice were fiery, trying to ensure that their players were fired up.
So much is dependent here on the success of UCLA's offense and Ben Olson. If Olson can be effective, and the offense can move the ball and put points up on the board, it will keep the UCLA defense off the field and having to deal with Stanback less. If UCLA's offense struggles, it puts its defense on the field against Stanback and it's probably just a matter of time until he can find holes to run through against UCLA's defense.
An early sign will be which offense owns the line of scrimmage in the first half. If UCLA can run the ball, the Washington D doesn't have much of a chance. If Washington's runners blow through UCLA's front seven, it could tilt the advantage to Washington. If both happen, it could be a high-scoring game.
It's not that big of a stretch to say this, because it's probably true in almost every game but: turnovers will probably decide the game.