Preview of Washington State

The Washington State game this Saturday is a pretty big one for UCLA, coming off the deflating loss to Notre Dame, and facing down a pretty formidable rest of its schedule. The match-ups are pretty even with the Cougars, so it might very well come down to which team will want it more...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- The Washington State Cougars come to the Rose Bowl Saturday to face the Bruins at 4:00 p.m. The game will be televised regionally by ABC, with Dan Fouts and Tim Brant announcing.

-- WSU is 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-10.  The Cougars' three losses have come against three top-25 teams, Auburn (40-14), USC (28-22) and California (21-3).  They've beaten Idaho (56-10), Baylor (17-15), Stanford (36-10), Oregon State (13-6) and last week had their biggest win of the season, knocking off then-15th-ranked Oregon, 34-23.  With the win over Oregon, WSU improved in the BCS rankings to #25.

-- UCLA leads the all-time series, 35-16-1, which dates back to 1928.

-- Last year, UCLA needed a comeback and overtime to beat the Cougars, 44-41.  It was UCLA's third-straight fourth-quarter comeback, with UCLA prevailing when Maurice Drew scored a one-yard touchdown in overtime. The two teams combined for 1,015 yards in total offense.  Washington State finished the year 4-7 and 1-7.

-- Washington State has won the last two meetings between the two teams in the Rose Bowl, with UCLA losing 31-29 in 2004 and 48-27 in 2002.  UCLA's last win over WSU came in the 1998 season, by a score of 49-17.  WSU, in fact, has had UCLA's number as of late, with the Bruins 1-4 against the Cougars in the 21st century, also losing in Pullman in 2001 and 2003.  Even going back 20 years, UCLA is 6-8 against WSU.

-- WSU's win over Oregon last week was its first over a ranked opponent since defeating Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl, 28-20. UCLA, of course, lost to those same Ducks the previous week.

-- Washington State is coached by Bill Doba, in his fourth year.  He's 24-19 overall, after going 4-7 and 5-6 in his last two years. In 2003, in his first season as head coach, Doba took the Cougars to a 10-3 record, including that win over Texas in the Holiday Bowl, which is considered the biggest victory in a bowl game in WSU history, and was named Pac-10 Co-Coach of the Year.  WSU finished the season ranked 9th in both polls.  Considered a defensive guru, Doba served at WSU as an assistant for 14 years before being named head coach after the departure of Mike Price.  He was WSU's defensive coordinator beginning in 1994.

-- Washington State's running back coach is Kelly Skipper, the former UCLA running back coach under Bob Toledo.

-- UCLA's 10-game home winning streak is its longest since 1997-1998 when it won 13 consecutive home games.

-- Many are comparing UCLA's defense this year to some of UCLA's best in history.  Perhaps the best in the modern era was in 1985, when defensive back James Washington and linebacker Ken Norton led the Bruins defense, which limited opponents to 70 net yards on the ground per game and ended the season ranked 7th nationally in total defense.   UCLA's 2006 defense is currently allowing just 78 yards per game rushing and is ranked 10th nationally.

-- UCLA is 16-2 when it wins the turnover battle under Head Coach Karl Dorrell, including 3-2 this year (wins over Utah, Stanford and Arizona, losses at Washington and Oregon).  It is 10-16 when it ties or loses the turnover battle, including 1-1 this season (Rice and Notre Dame).

-- UCLA is, of course, coming off a very deflating loss to Notre Dame last week, 20-17. The Bruins out-played the Irish for most of the game, but then Notre Dame's quarterback Brady Quinn used just three plays to drive 80 yards in 27 seconds for the game-winning touchdown.

-- The honorary captain for the game is James McAlister, the running back who earned All-American honors in 1973.  He was best known for teaming with fellow running back Kermit Johnson, and in 1973 helped to set the single-season rushing mark for any UCLA team in history (4,403 yards).  In track, McAlister also has held the school record for the long jump (27-0 ¼) for more than 30 years.  He played several years in the NFL, for the Raiders, Eagles and Patriots.

WASHINGTON STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

WSU has one of the best offenses in the Pac-10, averaging 401 yards per game, good enough to be ranked third in the conference (behind Oregon and Cal and ahead of USC), and 22nd in the country.

The Cougars' offense against UCLA's defense, which is ranked 10th nationally, should be a great match-up.

It's not as if WSU's offense is pass-happy or run-oriented either. It's a very balanced attack, averaging 244 yards through the air and 157 yards on the ground. Both elements are strong enough that it takes what opposing defenses give it very effectively. If an opposing defense is good against the run, Washington State will pass the ball for a majority of its yards, and if a defense has a suspect rushing defense, WSU will exploit that.

The Cougars, which has a rep as a passing offense, has relied more on its running game in recent years since it had All-American running back Jerome Harrison. Without Harrison, this season so far it's opened up its offense more, using more multi-receiver sets to spread defenses. 

The Washington State quarterback is veteran junior Alex Brink (6-3, 215), who has been under some attack in Pullman from fans and media.  He started out the season pretty rough against Auburn, settled down some, and then was benched for a time against Cal two weeks ago. Last week against Oregon he was very efficient, however, completing 20 of 23 passes and 17 in a row.  Brink is a veteran, having 24 starts under his belt, and a smart kid who generally makes good decisions, with an average arm but good mobility, being a threat to scramble.  Sophomore quarterback Gary Rogers is a mountain (6-7, 234) and they've used him when Brink was faltering, but he's nursing a mildly injured shoulder. 

It also helps the Washington State passing attack that the Cougars have some very good receivers. Probably the best news the program got in the off-season is that star wideout Jason Hill (6-1, 209) decided to return for his senior season. Hill has set or is chasing many WSU receiving records, with his 31 career touchdown receptions and 2,568 receiving yards both being #1 on the Cougar lists.  He currently on the season has 34 catches for 464 yards.

Cougar Wideout Michael Bumpus.


Probably the second best off-season news was that fellow receiver, junior Michael Bumpus (6-0, 195), saved himself academically. Bumpus is having an all-conference caliber season, leading the Pac-10 in receptions with 52, and receptions per game (6.5). 

Hill is more of the deep threat and Bumpus is the possession receiver with very good hands.

The Cougars usually work out of a three-receiver set, and the third receiver was supposed to be senior Chris Jordan (6-0, 213), but he's had continuing problems with a knee injury. He's been out but could see some time Saturday.  Stepping in admirably has been sophomore Brandon Gibson (6-1, 204) who, as WSU's third-leading receiver with 23 catches, has five more than UCLA's leading receiver (Brandon Breazell and Junior Taylor are tied with 18). 

Expected back in action this week is WSU's huge tight end, senior Cody Boyd (6-8, 262). Body is not really very quick, but he's a huge target. He was out for the Oregon game with a sprained ankle but has practiced this week with no problems. In fact, two other WSU tight ends were also sidelined, but junior Jed Collins (6-2, 215) stepped in and picked up the slack last week, getting his first career touchdown reception and then later moving to fullback and scoring on a one-yard plunge.  It will be interesting to see how WSU utilizes Collins this week. 

In the backfield, WSU really couldn't hope to replace Jerome Harrison with any one player, so they've done it by committee.  Since Harrison's back-up a season ago was sophomore DeMaudray Woolridge (5-9, 229) it was thought he'd step in primarily, but redshirt freshman Dwight Tardy (5-11, 211) has been the #1 guy. Last week he really took a step forward, running for 145 yards against Oregon.  But it has been a three-headed attack, with Tardy, Woolridge and junior JC transfer Derrell Hutsona (5-9, 181) combining for 138 yards per game from the tailback spot.  WSU will also throw to its backfield, with the three tailbacks totaling 21 catches (again, more than UCLA's leading receiver). 

The Cougars' offensive line has been solid to good, which has pleased WSU watchers since they had to replace two good OLs from a season ago.  It definitely is very large, averaging 6-5 in height and over 300 pounds. They do have two good, and big, tackles in senior Charles Harris (6-6, 320) and junior Bobby Byrd (6-7, 316). It's going to be another match-up of size at offensive tackle against speed at UCLA's defensive end spots.  Oregon won the match-up two weeks ago, UCLA then beat Notre Dame's two big tackles last week, so this is the rubber game of the match.  WSU will be without its starting right guard, sophomore Andy Roof, out with a heel bruise and ankle sprain,  replaced by sophomore Dan Rowlands (6-5, 290).   With Roof out, and WSU starting a redshirt freshman at center, Kenny Alfred (6-2, 293), the line doesn't look to be as effective in its interior as it does outside.  

UCLA's defense will have to probably do better than it did last week against Notre Dame if it hopes to limit WSU's offense in the same way.  It did get some very good play from its front seven, and has all season, with defensive tackles Kevin Brown and Brigham Harwell playing well so far this season, while the defensive ends, Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis, have been outstanding. This game will feature two of the best sack masters in the country, UCLA's Hickman and Washington State's Mkristo Bruce, with Hickman second in the nation, averaging 1.5 per game and Bruce third, averaging 1.25. 

Most pundits and fans talked about how UCLA's defensive backfield failed against Notre Dame, particularly Dennis Keyes, in making some crucial plays. Keyes will have to play better if UCLA is going to continue to be effective defensively the rest of the season.  We've heard, also, that if Keyes continues to falter UCLA could go with either Bret Lockett or Aaron Ware, looking for some more stability at the free safety position.

But while many have been pointing out how there were some lapses in the defensive backfield last week, many have failed to point out how well UCLA's secondary has done against the pass overall this season. UCLA
UCLA cornerback Trey Brown.
is giving up just 187 yards per game through the air, and has generally provided tight coverage on many teams with great receivers.  Trey Brown has had a very good year, tied for third in the Pac-10 for pass break-ups (1.14 per game), and despite a couple of lapses, junior Rodney Van has been solid, and true freshman corner Alterraun Verner has performed far beyond expectation.  Their play has been instrumental in the defense of new coordinator DeWayne Walker being effective, allowing Walker to utilize man coverage more, freeing up other bodies to pressure the quarterback.

Advantage: Even. It's a great match-up. The #22 offense in the country against the #10 defense. 

Really, neither unit has shown much vulnerability in any one area. Perhaps WSU has shown some susceptibility to a strong pass rush, and that's what UCLA has really done well so far this season - pressure the quarterback. Brink has shown some moments when he was thrown off his game by pressure, particularly against Cal.  So, you can expect UCLA to be utilizing its edge speed over WSU's bigger, slower OL to try to get in Brink's face.

But UCLA hasn't been tested that much against a good running team. Really, just once, against Oregon, and the Ducks ran for 256 yards against the Bruins.  While you can say that UCLA rebounded last week by allowing Notre Dame just 41 yards rushing, that was a bit misleading. Notre Dame ran the ball fairly well early on, but then needed to pass when it was down in the second half.  You wouldn't say that WSU is a power running team, but if you had to say that Washington State's offense did one thing the best it would be running the ball from its different looks, with the muscle to run still left over from Jerome Harrison's days. But it definitely lives up to its heritage as a passing team, throwing the ball as many times as its run the ball so far this season, and when you have two All-Pac level receivers, why not?

In this match-up much will depend on how well Brink does, especially in trying to throw under UCLA's pressure.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. WASHINGTON STATE'S DEFENSE

While Washington State's offense is pretty balanced, its defense isn't.  The Cougars are one of the toughest defenses against the rush in the Pac-10, allowing just 109 yards per game. But they're giving up most of their yardage through the air, allowing an average of 223 yards passing per game.

And then you think it'd really hit WSU at its core when it suffered some injuries that could really impact their rushing defense.

The Cougars have lost their three best defensive tackles because of injury --  Ropati Pitoitua, A'i Ahmu,  and  Aaron Johnson.

But amazingly, it didn't seem to affect them last week. Johnson and Pitoitua went down in the first quarter of the Oregon game, and then junior Bryan Tarkington (6-4, 320) and sophomore Matt Eichelberger (6-4, 312), their back-ups, played the rest of the game. And in probably one of the most surprising results of the season in the Pac-10, Washington State still succeeded in shutting down Oregon's rushing game, which is #1 in the conference. Oregon managed just 104 yards on the ground, half its season average, and Duck star running back Jonathan Stewart was held to just 28 yards.

It, to the contrary, has pumped up WSU's defense. This week, the rest of the defensive players were praising Tarkington and Eichelberger for their performances and really feeding off the energy of it.

Washington State's Mkristo Bruce.


WSU's defense, perhaps, gets its personality from flashy defensive end Mkristo Bruce (6-7, 249). Bruce, as we mentioned above, is in a sack competition with UCLA's Justin Hickman. He's quick for his size and has long arms that give him great leverage. While he has 10 sacks on the season he also impressively has 50 tackles. He also is pretty flamboyant and demonstrative. On the other side is junior Lance Broadus (6-2, 219), who is a linebacker playing defensive end, using his quickness to make up for his lack of bulk. Broadus, of course, is especially good rushing the passer, having 5 sacks on the season.

Washington State had probably the biggest task of replacing a player in the Pac-10 next to USC replacing Reggie Bush when middle linebacker Will Derting graduated last year.  Sophomore Greg Trent (5-11, 219) is a little guy, but he plays hard and is in position much of the time, similar to UCLA's Christian Taylor. The Cougars might have one of the best outside linebackers in the conference that nobody knows about in senior Scott Davis (5-11, 230), who flies around the field, and on the other side is steady senior Steve Dildine (6-1, 240).

The secondary has had some troubles, despite one player having an all-conference type of year. Senior strong safety Eric Frampton (6-0, 202) is fourth in the Pac-10 in tackles per game, averaging 9.2. He had a career-high 16 last week against Oregon and was named the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week.  Free safety, junior Husain Abdullah (6-1, 178) is solid, but the Cougs have had some struggles plugging in two new cornerbacks after losing both starters last season.  To add injury to the situation, senior starting cornerback Tyron Brackenridge (6-0, 186), coming off a good performance against Oregon, has a hamstring strain and will likely get limited playing time against UCLA.  Watch for JC transfer Brian Williams (6-1, 167) to get time in his place, and for UCLA to be looking to exploit him.

UCLA opened up its offense a bit last week, and it seems like the right time to do it this week, coming home after two weeks on the road against a team that doesn't defend the pass well.  UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan had the best game of his short career in South Bend last
UCLA wide receiver Marcus Everett.
Saturday, throwing for 217 yards on 16-of-32 passing.

We said last week in our preview that UCLA would be looking more for Marcus Everett down the field and, in fact, it did. Everett had the best game of any receiver yet this year, catching six balls for 102 yards and one touchdown on a 54-yard reception.  You can expect UCLA to look more for Everett deep, since he seems like the only receiver who has the combination of enough speed and strength to stay on his route to get down the field.  Brandon Breazell, who was thought to be UCLA's long-ball threat, has really struggled so far this year on long pass plays. Much of it you might not be able to blame him for, but it seems that opposing defenses have gotten clued in to try to bump Breazell off his route.

UCLA's rushing offense looks to face some tough sledding this week, even with the injuries to Washington State's DL. UCLA hasn't shown it can really run the ball against even a slightly competent defense yet this season, and it would be a surprise if it showed it this week.  Chris Markey has been serviceable, able to get the 4 yards when there's a hole, but he's shown this season that he's not a big-play running back, with UCLA really hurting for some explosive, big-yardage runs.  UCLA has rushed for only 5 touchdowns yet this season, and the longest was a 2-yard run.  It could be the week when UCLA takes the wraps off freshman Chane Moline, with second-stringer Kahlil Bell out for the game.  Also look for Derrick Williams to finally get a couple of carries in relief of Markey. But, overall, this is not, by any means, an imposing group of tailbacks, and it should strike too much fear in the hearts of Washington State's front seven.

Probably one of the biggest issues on offense is the status of UCLA offensive tackle Aleksey Lanis. He has been playing with a sprained ankle most of the season, and he tweaked it again Wednesday night in practice.  His back-up Brian Abraham, was beaten soundly when he faced the Oregon pass rush, which isn't close to the Cougar pass rush.

Advantage: Even. Yes, this one's even-up, too.  Actually, if we were going to give either unit a nod, you might tilt toward Washington State.  UCLA's offense is ranked 79th in the country, third worst in the Pac-10, and Washington State's defense is 71st in the country, fourth worst in the Pac-10.  Washington State would definitely have the advantage if it had its two starting defensive tackles, but with the performance the back-ups had against Oregon last week, it's hard to expect a drop-off.
Watch for UCLA to recognize it will have to throw the ball to move the ball. Cowan has shown that he has the chops to throw down the field.  The one issue: UCLA will have to be in max protection to try to contain Washington State's pass rush, which is first in the conference with a total of 29 sacks. Containing Bruce and Broadus is going to be the biggest factor of this match-up, especially if UCLA doesn't have Lanis. 

Neither team has stellar special teams overall. UCLA does probably have one of the best place-kickers in the country, Justin Medlock, and the way this game is shaping up, he could be a huge factor.  Washington State's kicker, on the other hand, is a major concern for the Cougars. Last week he missed a 31-yard field goal attempt, had a PAT blocked and blew a squib kick.  UCLA's punter Aaron Perez also continues to be a concern, unable to boom a punt when it's needed, but seemingly gets off boomers when he needs to pooch it inside the 20.  It's uncertain whether Terrence Austin will be back from a hamstring injury to return punts, so Ryan Graves, who did it for the first time last week against Notre Dame (and did fine) could be the man again this week.

Prediction: 

It's a pretty evenly-matched game.  On both sides of the ball, the units are pretty evenly matched, with one of the best offenses going against one of the best defenses, and one of the worst offenses going against one of the worst defenses in the conference.  Both teams are averaging 24 points per game.

Psychologically, it's hard to predict how the loss to Notre Dame will impact UCLA's morale.  It could either make them acknowledge that the emotional level they played with last week is something that should be standard. Or it could be that last week's Notre Dame was UCLA blowing its emotional wad for the season.  On the other hand, it's not hard to predict that Washington State, coming off probably its biggest win in three seasons last week against Oregon, is going to be pumped.  In recent history, UCLA just doesn't seem to get up for Washington State, seemingly assuming that the Cougars are not very good and then having their butts handed to them.

Turnovers might not be much of a factor, comparatively to many games. Neither team turns the ball over a great deal, and neither has tended to make many mistakes. 

When a good defense goes up against a good offense, traditionally a good defense usually prevails.  While Washington State's offense has put up decent numbers, many who know the program question its consistency. And frankly, they haven't done much offensively against teams with good defenses.

On the other side of the ball, UCLA's offense will probably be stopped on the ground and not have a great amount of time to throw the ball, and fairly limited overall. In the last few weeks, while UCLA has accomplished a few big pass plays, they seemed almost haphazard and lucky (receivers out of their routes, Cowan scrambling and forcing the throws) than as a result of great design. That kind of luck usually doesn't hold up.

In other words, it's probably going to be a close game, and low-scoring. Probably the team that gets the least amount of bad calls from the Pac-10 officials wins. 

It's a huge game for UCLA, a must-win. If it loses to Washington State, it would be three losses in a row, heading into a road game against Cal. With a loss, UCLA would be facing a potentially losing season, at 4-4, with two top 25 teams left on its schedule (Cal and USC) and two more with winning records playing good ball as of late (Oregon State and Arizona State). 

It's a definite gut check for the Bruins - to see if, after the deflating loss to Notre Dame, they're going to pack it in, or continue to show heart and toughness the rest of the season.

UCLA 17
Washington State 14


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