Preview of Washington State

On one hand, Washington State isn't very good, with one of the worst defenses in the Pac-10 and a one-dimensional offense. On the other hand, it's always a tough road game for UCLA in Pullman, and the status of Patrick Cowan is uncertain...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

 

-- UCLA travels to Pullman, Washington, to take on the Washington State Cougars Saturday at 3:30.  The game will be televised by FSN nationally (FSW West in Los Angeles) with Brian Davis, Mark Rypien adn Michael Eaves calling the action.

 

-- UCLA is 5-2 overall and 4-0 in Pac-10 play, which makes the Bruins tied for first in the conference with Arizona State.

 

-- Washington State is 2-5 overall and 0-4 in the Pac-10.

 

-- The Cougars lost at Wisconsin, then notched two wins at home against San Diego State and Idaho. They then lost on the road against USC and Arizona, at home against Arizona State and then two weeks ago on the road against Oregon. Last week they had a bye.

 

-- The Bruins lead the series with the Cougars, which dates back to 1928, with a 35-17-1 edge.

 

-- Last season, UCLA lost to WSU, 37-15, in the Rose Bowl.  UCLA led at halftime, 15-14, but the Cougars scored 23 unanswered points in the second half.  In that game, WSU quarterback Alex Brink threw for 405 yards, the seventh highest mark by an opponent in Bruin history.  The 515 total yards of offense gained by the Cougars was the most by any 2006 opponent.

 

-- The last match-up in Pullman saw UCLA win, 44-41, in overtime. UCLA trailed 21-0, and still trailed 38-21 in the fourth quarter before Drew Olson threw touchdown passes to Marcedes Lewis and Marcus Everett, and then Maurice Jones-Drew ran for a touchdown in overtime to seal the win.

 

-- That win by UCLA in 2005 was the one win for Bruins in the last five meetings between the two schools in Pullman, and was the only one in the last six meetings between the teams overall. 

 

-- UCLA, also, is 6-10 overall against WSU in the last 20 years.  It's UCLA's worst record against a Pac-10 opponent in that time, the next worst being the 9-10-1 record against USC.

 

-- Washington State is coached by Bill Doba, in his fifth year as the head coach of the Cougars.  In that time, he's gone 27-26. Doba, a longtime WSU assistant and defensive coordinator, was moved to head coach when Mike Price took his short-lived head coaching job at Alabama in December of 2002.  He led the Cougars to a 10-3 record in 2003, a Holiday Bowl win over Texas and a final national ranking of #9.  The win over Texas in the Holiday Bowl was the biggest bowl victory in the school's history.  Doba, however, hasn't posted a winning record since 2003, going 17-23, and is on the hot seat in the Palouse.

 

-- The Cougars are definitely going through a tough part of their schedule. Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA and Cal combine for a record of 23-5. 

 

-- Each of the last two times Washington State entered its game with UCLA on a four-game losing streak, like it's doing this week, the Cougars came away with a victory.

 

-- Washington State has scored at least 20 points in each of its last nine home games against the Bruins.

 

Washington State is the school that perhaps handed UCLA its most disappointing loss in the last 20 years. In 1988, UCLA was ranked #1 in the country, the only time in the last 40 years.  It was 7-0 and had perhaps its most talented team ever, when the unranked Cougars came from behind to beat the Bruins in the Rose Bowl, 34-30.  UCLA went on to go 10-2, losing to USC that year, but it's not hard to assert that if the Bruins had beaten the Cougars on October 29th, 1988, they very well might have gone on to beat USC three weeks later and perhaps win a national championship.

 

-- Pullman, Washington, is considered one of the toughest places to play in the conferences. Martin Stadium, which seats just 35,117, isn't necessarily tough because of the fans, even though Cougar fans aren't quiet. But the combination of typically how cold it is and how difficult the trip to Pullman can be makes it draining on visiting teams.


-- Saturday's weather in Pullman calls for a high of 53 degrees and a low of 35 degrees, with sunny skies.

 

WASHINGTON STATE OFFENSE V. UCLA DEFENSE

 

The Cougars have always been known as a passing offense, even after Doba took over the program.

 

This year, they're definitely living up to that rep.

 

Washington State is one of the best passing teams in the country, averaging just a shade under 300 yards per game through the air, which leads the Pac-10 and is 11th in the nation.  

 

That, also, might be a little misleading, too. The Cougars have been behind in most of their games and have had to go to the air.  And, their running game isn't very good to begin with. So, they throw the ball about 60% of the time.  When you're throwing the ball an average of 50 times per game you're bound to make some yardage.

 

In other words, this isn't much of a balanced offense, and they use the one-back spread specifically to launch a passing attack, with the running attack purely complementary. 

 

You also would tend to throw if your best offensive talents were your quarterback and your receivers. 

 

Quarterback Alex Brink (SR, 6-3, 215) is the old veteran of the Pac-10, having started his last 35 games, which gets him ranked second in the nation in terms of starting streaks for quarterbacks.  He is Washington State's all-time leader in passing yards (9,174), pass attempts and pass completions, and is second all-time in touchdown passes and completion percentage.  He's only 176 yards away from surpassing John Elway for 10th place in career passing yards in Pac-10 history. Even with such big names coming before him as Washington State quarterbacks – like Mark Rypien, Drew Bledsoe, Timm Rosenbach and Ryan Leaf -- Brink is considered by many to be the all-time best Cougar QB.

 

Brink, obviously, uses his experience and savvy, and is very good at finding the open receiver and general decision-making (He completes a very impressive 62% of his throws). He has a strong enough arm to throw easily down field and has the feet to be mobile enough.  He is easily the best quarterback UCLA has faced yet this season, and arguably could be the best they'll face for the entire season. Brink, though has had a chink in the armor recently, throwing interceptions in six consecutive games. 

 

Receiver Michael Bumpus.

The other go-to guy is the guy Brink likes to go to, and that's receiver Michael Bumpus (SR, 6-0, 198).  Bumpus is among the leaders in the Pac-10 in most reception categories, with 41 catches and 478 yards and four touchdowns. He isn't lightning fast, but deceivingly strong, with very good hands. 

 

After Brink and Bumpus, easily the next best offensive weapon is Brandon Gibson (JR, 6-1, 202) at flanker, who leads the Pac-10 in receiving yards per game (94.5).  The slot receiver Bumpus is the guy Brink looks for short and Gibson is the guy he looks for long.  Gibson was the guy who was just blossoming last season when he had a huge day against the Bruins in the Rose Bowl.  Gibson missed the Oregon game with a hamstring injury but the bye week has given him time to recover.

 

Probably the next most productive offensive skill guy is tight end Jed Collins (SR, 6-2, 250), who is steadily having a very good season, with 32 catches so far. He isn't big, but he's quick and is good at finding a seam.  He also had a career night a few weeks ago against Arizona State.

 

Charles Dillon (SR, 6-0, 188) is the third receiver in the three-receiver set, and he's a steady producer, even though he's been a bit banged up as of late.

 

Watch for Jeshua Anderson (FR, 6-2, 184), who is thought to be the future star receiver, with good size and speed.

 

The tailback is Dwight Tardy (SO, 5-10, 200), who had a pretty solid freshman season but hasn't really taken it to the next level in his sophomore outing.  He sometimes looks good, and other times tends to look like he's running in slow motion.  The back-up tailbacks, Chris Ivory (SO, 6-0, 228) and Kevin McCall (SR, 5-11, 213), provide a bit of a change of pace, with more punch, but they only get a few carries between the two of them a game. 

 

Washington State ranks ninth in the Pac-10 and 100th in the nation (out of 119 teams) in rushing, averaging 108.6 yards per game. And you can't really rationalize it that they just don't run enough because they're gaining only 3.6 yards per rush.

 

Some of the blame has to fall with the offensive line, which has shown its inexperience this season, when it had to replace two starters from last season.  The three interior guys returned, led by left guard Bobby Byrd (SR, 6-7, 307), who is probably WSU's best OL, with right guard Dan Rowlands (JR, 6-4, 284) and center Kenny Alfred (SO, 6-2, 300), respectively.  The play at tackle has been spotty, however, with JC transfer Vaughn Lesuma (JR, 6-5, 329) and Micah Hannam (R-FR, 6-4, 279) getting exposed a bit, especially by fast defensive ends.  Hannam hasn't practice this week and could be out for Saturday. 

 

UCLA has injury issues with its defense this week, with the announcement that defensive tackle Jess Ward is out for at least two weeks with a knee injury. Star defensive tackle Brigham Harwell has been attempting to return from a knee injury himself, but looks doubtful.  There is steady starter Kevin Brown, but even more injuries after Harwell and Ward; Jerzy Siewierski was limited in practice this week because of a shoulder injury and Chase Moline is out for the season with neck and back injuries. UCLA, then, is down to true freshman Brian Price, and green, redshirt freshman David Carter, with Siekwierski getting some time. Price, coming into the season late because of eligibility issues, has looked very good, and it could be a matter that, once he gets the position, it could be difficult to take it from him. Or at least, the role of being the first DT off the bench behind Brown and Harwell.

 

On top of that, starting defensive end Nikola Dragovic is almost certainly out for the game and his back-up, Tom Blake, is banged up with a knee contusion, but will probably play.

 

Trey Brown and Kyle Bosworth.

UCLA is also banged up at linebacker, with team leader and middle linebacker Christian Taylor almost certainly out. After experiencing a severe concussion and seizures on the sideline last week, he actually hasn't been ruled out for the game, but it'd be surprising if he played.  With Taylor out, Kyle Bosworth will slide over to the middle linebacker spot while Aaron Whittington steps up to be the primary guy at the strongside spot.  Those two will get most of the two in the nickel, which only utilizes two linebackers.  Bosworth played middle linebacker up until this year, when he switched to strong but, because he's been playing so well, it's clear the UCLA staff now trusts him more to replace Taylor for this game.  Reggie Carter will probably also play middle linebacker, with John Hale as the second strongside linebacker in the nickel. 

 

It's a timely game, though, for UCLA,  to have so many injuries to your defensive front seven, when you're facing the worst rushing team in the conference.

 

With how Alterraun Verner has been playing at cornerback, with the two interceptions last week, including the game-winning one and touchdown, expect him to take over most of the snaps at cornerback over Rodney Van.  But UCLA will probably be mostly in a nickel alignment against WSU's spread, so Verner and Van will essentially both get starters minutes. 

 

Advantage: UCLA.  It's not as clearly an advantage to UCLA as you might think. This is essentially the same offense that torched this same UCLA defense in the Rose Bowl a year ago. UCLA has a tendency not to do well against experienced quarterbacks like Brink who work out of the spread.   

 

But the match-up is good for the Bruins. They wouldn't want to face a good running team with all the injuries to their front seven, and the Cougars don't run well. UCLA will work out of its nickel package mostly,  and then they'll try to put pressure on Brink.  The Cougars allowed Brink to get sacked six times against Oregon two weeks ago, and they've really been trying to shore up pass protection during their bye week. UCLA's defensive ends, Bruce Davis and even linebacker-sized Korey Bosworth, have to be licking their chops thinking about WSU's big, slower, inexperienced offensive tackles. If the Cougars shade a second blocker toward Davis, watch for Bosworth, who's played fairly well at defensive end, to get into the backfield.

 

UCLA OFFENSE V. WASHINGTON STATE DEFENSE

 

This could be a match-up of ugly football. 

 

First, WSU's defense isn't very good. Ranked 100th in the nation, allowing 447 yards per game on average and 286 yards through the air per game, which gets them ranked 110th in the nation.  For Doba, a defensive guy, this isn't something he's very proud of, and actually one of the driving factors in Pullman to oust him.

 

But on the other hand, UCLA's quarterback Patrick Cowan didn't practice Wednesday and part of Tuesday.  UCLA is calling it "fatigue," but sources indicate there could be some instability with his right knee, the one that kept him out before he returned last week against Cal.  It'd be a complete surprise if Cowan didn't play, but there has to be a question of how effective he can be with a knee that was weak enough to keep him out of practice while the team is going over the game plan.  Cowan, though, has shown a penchant for being under-practiced and coming in and looking good.

 

If Cowan can't go, we're back to the offense we saw under McLeod Bethel-Thompson.  True freshman Chris Forcier has been getting increased reps in practice just to prepare him to play, but it'd be surprising if he did; Bethel-Thompson, at this point, is more effective, and there's also Osaar Rasshan. Trying to prepare Forcier and get Bethel-Thompson minutes left Rasshan with few reps in practice Wednesday, but we suspect Rasshan would get a chance before Forcier.

 

No matter, it's pretty simple: If Cowan can't play close to his capability, the other options leave UCLA in a world of hurt.

 

But again, we expect Cowan to play. He'll probably be even less mobile than he was against Cal, but he'll gut it out.

 

And Washington State's defense isn't one to generate a great deal of fear.  They're allowing a whopping 36.9 points per game, which is 107th in the nation.  (get the gist, here, that WSU's defense is ranked pretty low in many national categories?).   the Cougars are second to last in rush defense in the Pac-10, allowing 169 yards per game.

 

Hey, even a gimpy Cowan, or Bethel-Thompson, can hand the ball off to Kahlil Bell.

 

If you think UCLA's defensive line has had some injury issues, it's a way of life with the Cougars.  Doba wasn't sure about any of his defensive linemen being completely recovered from injuries by the start of the season.  Ropati Pitoitua (SR, 6-8, 290) is the anchor at tackle (and a rather tall anchor), and Pitoitua has missed many games in the last three years due to a broken leg, bad ankles and knee strains.  The other starter at tackle, A'i Ahmu (JR, 6-0, 292) has worked through a number of injuries in his career, as has his back-up, Aaron Johnson (SR, 6-7, 318), who started the first five games, had off-season back surgery.  So far, though, the three have sewn themselves together and played in every game this season.

 

The injury bug on the defensive line wasn't just confined to the tackles.  Defensive end Matt Mullennix (SR, 6-6, 258) is playing after missing all of 2006 with an injury, and Lance Broadus (SR, 6-2, 227) had some off-season injuries, too.  WSU has started five different players at D-end so far this season, trying to find a spark.  Kevin Kooyman (SO, 6-6, 242) is the one they expect to be really good down the line, and Mike Graise (JR, 6-3, 220) also will see time.

 

No matter who's there, the WSU DL has been poor, not able to contain the edge very well and then, by the second half of the game, getting knocked off the ball.  They get to the quarterback when they blitz, and struggle to mount a consistent four-man rush. 

 

Linebacker Andy Mattingly.

If there's been some good news for the Washington State defense this season, it's clearly the play of their linebackers. In fact, Doba went to a 3-4 alignment against Oregon two weeks ago to take advantage of the talent he believes he has at linebacker (The Cougs lost that game, 53-7). Andy Mattingly (SO, 6-4, 241) shares the weakside linebacker spot because starter Kendrick Dunn (JR, 5-11, 224) has been nicked up, and lately Mattingly has taken advantage of the opportunity. In the last two games, Mattingly has 26 tackles and six sacks.  Mattingly benefitted on those sacks from the pressure applied by the returning starter at middle linebacker Greg Trent (JR, 5-11, 220). Trent leads the team in tackles with 57, Mattingly is second with 48 and Dunn third with 46.  The strongside ‘backer, Corey Evans (JR, 6-2, 240) has also put in a solid campaign so far this season, making the linebackers the strength of the Cougar defense.

 

Once you get behind those linebackers, it's a bit of mess in Washington State's defensive backfield.  WSU has given up a league-worst 21 touchdown passes.

 

Strong safety Alfonso Jackson (JR, 5-9, 204) has been a consistent presence, but it gets questionable after that.  Perhaps the biggest disappointment has been the play of the returning starter at free safety, Husain Abdullah (SR, 6-0, 199), who has been responsible for a number of breakdowns leading to big offensive plays.  And Abdullah was the one Doba was relying on to be the steady influence.  Jackson, also, has been out with a concussion and hasn't practiced yet this week.

 

At the corners, true freshman Chima Nwachukwu (FR, 5-11, 189) has actually done better than most would have anticipated, but he's still a true freshman.  Devin Giles (SO, 6-0, 158) has a banged-up shoulder that made him come out of the Oregon game, but it's reportedly better.

UCLA's Patrick Cowan.

 

Even when healthy, though, the Cougars defensive secondary isn't very good.

 

UCLA's offense showed some life against Cal, balancing a very good running game with an effective-enough passing game.  UCLA's Bell has really been the key to UCLA's running game being among the best in the Pac-10, even though it took the UCLA coaching staff a little too long to recognize that he was the guy at tailback. Chris Markey, who Bell replaced as the #1 guy, has been limited by turf toe in recent weeks, but he's expected to play more Saturday.

 

UCLA's offensive line has been juggled a bit this season, but it looks like they've finally found a set line-up they're going to go with.  Micah Reed has seemingly found a home at right guard and the play has improved out of that position.  The UCLA OL has been excellent at creating room in the running game and good enough at protecting the quarterback.

 

The wide receiver group, which started out as one of the deepest units on the team, has seen some hits.  Gavin Ketchum is out, and Marcus Everett, who many thought would return, looks like he's out for the long-term with a high-ankle sprain.  Of course, Osaar Rasshan went back to quarterback, so UCLA has had to dip into its reserves. Expect to see career back-ups Ryan Graves and Jamil Turner forced into action in this game.  Even so, UCLA still has one of the best receivers in the conference in Brandon Breazell, and Patrick Cowan showed his possession-receiver talents last week against Cal.

 

Advantage: UCLA.  Of course, if Cowan can't play, or can't be close to as effective as he was against Cal, all bets are off.  It's now a pretty known commodity that UCLA's offense can only be even moderately effective if Cowan is running it.  Without him, on the road in a hostile environment like Pullman...well, you don't want to think about it.

 

But with Cowan even just 75%, UCLA still has the advantage. Heck, with Cowan just vertical and on the field, they have an advantage. 

 

UCLA should exploit its running game in this one.  It can clearly run the ball on WSU, and there's no reason to not try to use that to its fullest extent – again, in a hostile environment with your quarterback potentially not at 100%. 

 

The Cougars, too, have been really susceptible to passes thrown under coverage, since the linebackers are so busy trying to run all over the field making up for the other defensive units.  So, you can even expect UCLA to have its short passing game open.

 

WSU is the worst in the country in third-down defense, allowing close to 60% on third-down conversions. That right there should give UCLA's offense a boost, which is notoriously poor at converting third downs.

 

Washington State's defense has had a habit of making big mistakes and getting in a deep hole early.  If UCLA can't get some quick points on the board early, and Washington State's defense starts to feel it can play with UCLA, and Cowan is limited, and the Cougars stack the box, it could get tough to gain yards.

 

More than likely, though, you can expect UCLA's running backs to break off a few big gainers that will give the offense enough opportunity to score enough points.

 

Special Teams for the Cougars are completely a mess.  Starting punter Darryl Blunt has is unable to play because of a violation of team rules, which leaves WSU Reid Forrest to do the punting. Forrest uses a rugby style where he runs up and to the side before he punts the ball.  WSU's punt and kick-off return teams have been a huge problem, with lapses and penalties killing them, handing over far too good of field position to opposing offenses.  For UCLA, redshirt freshman place-kicker Kai Forbath is having a very good season, having made 15 of his last 16 attempts and currently tied for 2nd in the NCAA by averaging 2.14 per game. 

 

Prediction

 

Washington State isn't very good, and the issue of Doba losing his job after the season has over-shadowed the season.  The Cougars keep repeating over and over that they have to get themselves back on track, but it looks like a season that's potentially going to spiral out of control. 

 

On the other hand, UCLA doesn't do well in Pullman. And you could make a case that Washington State could be under-valued. Four of their five defeats have come against ranked opponents, including three road losses against top-10 teams (then-#7 Wisconsin, then-#1 USC, and then-#9 Oregon).  Two of their wins at home were against mid-major programs (San Diego State and Idaho). Their other home game was a loss against Arizona State, 23-20, which required the Sun Devils to win it in the last minute with a field goal. If there ever was a game that Washington State's defense looked decent, it was at home against the high-powered ASU offense. Combine that with Brink, who is always good at home and setting school records with just about every game, and Washington State gave ASU all it could handle.

 

This game should be a blow-out, but with UCLA's poor history in Pullman and Cowan perhaps being limited, there are too many factors that will more than likely keep it close.

 

UCLA 30

Washington State 24


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