When analyzing the UCLA-Washington State game, it comes down to a matter of quarterbacks and motivation. The question is: Who will have the most of each on Saturday?
-- Uhhh, in case anyone didn't know: If Washington State wins, it goes to the Rose Bowl. If UCLA wins, USC goes to the Rose Bowl.
-- This game will affect the bowl fates of about 12 other bowl games and two dozen teams.
-- There are mounting reports that Head Coach Bob Toledo's job is on the line, and a loss against Washington State could be a big determining factor in his future.
-- UCLA (7-4, 4-3) hold a 34-13-1 lead in the overall series against Washington State (9-2, 6-1).
-- In the series, the home team has won the last five games and seven of the last 10.
-- Uhhh...The co-Pac-10 Player of the Year, Washington State's quarterback Jason Gesser, is nursing an injured ankle. He's been receiving up to 6 hours of treatment a day since injuring it in the Washington game. Washington State's head coach Mike Price has said he won't reveal whether Gesser will play until game time.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. WASHINGTON STATE'S DEFENSE
It's really striking how, in UCLA's last two games of the season, it's so evident how important the quarterback position is.
In the USC game there was a stark contrast between USC's fifth-year senior Carson Palmer and UCLA's twin true freshmen, Drew Olson and Matt Moore.
In the Washington State game, again, there will be a huge contrast between Washington State's Jason Gesser, even if he's not 100%, and UCLA's talented but green Olson and Moore. Probably the two biggest factors in this game are Gesser's health and the effectiveness of UCLA's quarterbacks.
Head Coach Bob Toledo has said that he intends to use both Olson and Moore, much like the plan going into the USC game. We'll see if both young quarterbacks gained some considerable experience in playing in a high-pressure situation like the USC game, because this game against Washington State is fairly comparable pressure-wise.
There are a number of factors here that don't necessarily bode well for UCLA's quarterbacks. Washington State has a very good defense, one that is particularly good at pressuring opposing quarterbacks. On the season they've had 48 sacks, and that is not taking into consideration the hurries and hits on opposing quarterbacks. If you've watched a Washington State game this season you'll understand just how good they are at bringing the heat.
The defense and the defensive line is led by one of the best players in the Pac-10, junior defensive tacle Rien Long (pictured at right). Long leads the Cougars with 13 sacks on the season (2nd in the Pac-10) and 19.5 tackles for loss (third in the Pac-10). For a tackle, he's really huge, at 6-6, and he has a different style of play than your usual 6-2 and squattier defensive tackle. He plays more like a defensive end at tackle, using his long arms and size for leverage. UCLA's interior offensive lineman, particularly Eyoseph Efseaff, will get the assignment of containing Long. It's a big one since really no other offensive line has done much of a job in doing it so far this season.
Long has some solid players around him on the line. The Cougars utilize more of the smaller and faster defensive end type. Fred Shavies, their strongside end is 6-2 and 261, while weakside end Isaac Brown is 6-3 and 226. UCLA's big senior tackles, Bryce Bohlander and Mike Saffer (pictured below) have both struggled sometimes this year against the quicker type of end. Shavies and Brown have 13.5 sacks between the two of them.
It will be a big, emotional game for outgoing seniors Bohlander and Saffer. It's their last game in the Rose Bowl, and an all-around emotional one, going up against perhaps the best pass rushing defensive line they've faced all season.
Perhaps the element to the game that might be even bigger than the pressure on the quarterback is Washington State's ability to shut down opponent's running game. They're allowing just 85 yards a game on the ground. With the UCLA passing game a bit under wraps because of its young quarterbacks, it's essential that UCLA can run the ball, and get its star ball carriers, Tyler Ebell and Manuel White some room to run. USC held UCLA to 40 yards rushing overall, and Ebell to 56, and there are those that consider Washington State's rush defense just as good as USC's.
Another factor that might the chances of UCLA's offense is UCLA's depleted wide receiving corps. Starter Tab Perry is out with a high ankle sprain. Next in line is Ryan Smith, but he's out for the season with a lingering foot injury. Jon Dubravac is doubtful, and Garrett Lepisto has been ill this week. That leaves starter Craig Bragg, and true freshman Junior Taylor. Bragg, obviously, has been UCLA's big-play receiver this season. Taylor is very talented but young, getting his first career start. After those two, the ranks are extremely thin. It's extremely significant that, with freshman quarterbacks, UCLA will also be primarily playing a true freshman at wide receiver. That's a lot of inexperience out there.
UCLA will have to rely pretty heavily on a big game from its star senior tight end, Mike Seidman. Even though he might be needed to stay in and block, with the depleted receiver corps he'll have to catch some passes.
Washington State, too, matches up well against UCLA since, if there is a little vulnerability in its defense it might be in its pass defense due to injuries. Which is exactly what you want if you're Washington State – getting matched up against a team with freshman quarterbacks and depleted receivers. The true standout in the defensive secondary is cornerback Marcus Trufant. What compounds UCLA's matchup problems is that Washington State might actually start its first-team secondary for the first time in a month. Jason David, the other starting cornerback, has been out, but the word is that he plans to play this Saturday. David leads the Pac-10 in interceptions with six.
Advantage: Washington State. UCLA's freshman quarterbacks will probably be better than they were against USC, but it's still a tough situation for them. They're playing against a very good, now fairly healthy – and motivated – defense. Their receiver depth is extremely thin, and they're starting one freshman wideout. In games where UCLA was clearly more talented and the overall better team – such as against Stanford, Arizona and Washington – UCLA didn't need its quarterbacks to make as many plays, but just keep the team from losing. Now, when it faces the caliber of teams like USC and Washington State, teams that are generally on the same overall talent-level, just a don't-beat-us performance from your quarterback is not enough. Again, as it was stated above, it's all about the quarterback here. UCLA would need its freshman quarterbacks Olson and Moore to step up and have a pretty unexpectedly huge game, which might be a little too much to ask of them.
WASHINGTON STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
Again, the huge determining factor here is the quarterback. Will Jason Gesser play? And if he does, will he be able to be effective?
The answer to the first question: More than likely, yes.
And the answer to the second question will very likely be what decides this game.
Gesser is a quarterback that you can't easily replace. While many are saying that his backup, junior Matt Kegel, is capable, no matter how capable he is he's not the play maker that Gesser is, at least at this stage in his career.
Gesser is Washington State's version of Cade McNown. So, look at it this way: How effective would UCLA had been in a game when McNown was quarterback if his mobility were limited as Gesser's will be? Probably, because of his smarts, instincts and play-making ability, probably still not too bad.
Washington State will try to protect Gesser as much as possible and not force him to have to scramble. They'll employ the shotgun quite a bit, and use the short passing game. Washington State has been very good at protecting Gesser this season, giving up the second-least sacks in the Pac-10.
And Gesser has probably the best group of receivers UCLA has faced this season. Mike Bush (pictured at right), the 6-6 senior, has 46 receptions, tied on the team with Devard Darling, the 6-3 sophomore. Jerome Riley, the 6-2 senior, has 43 receptions. That's three guys over 6-2 with a total of 135 receptions on the season. UCLA quite clearly had a challenge two weeks ago when it faced USC's Mike Williams, Kareem Kelly and Keary Colbert, and the Washington State trio are very similar in size and talent. WSU also has a pretty good trure freshman tight end in Troy Bienemann.
Protecting Gesser and providing running room are two all Pac-10 first team offensive linemen, senior guard Derrick Roche and sophomore tackle Calvin Armstrong. They both anchor the right side of Washington State's line. Roche is very large, at 6-6, and pretty quick for a guy his size. He has given slower defensive tackles fits this season. And Armstrong is one of the Cougar's true young stars. At 6-8 and 315, and only a sophomore, he had a great season, being one of those unusual guys who not only is huge but has good quickness for a man that size. A great matchup could be UCLA's second-team All-Pac-10 defensive end Dave Ball against Armstrong.
What's pretty impressive is how truly balanced Washington State is. They have one of the best passing attacks in the country and throw the ball quite a bit, but it isn't at the expense of their running game. The Cougars are still averaging 132 yards a game on the ground (UCLA averages 139). Between their two tailbacks, they have a 1,000 yard rusher. Their starter is junior Jermaine Green, a 5-11 and 221 pound rolling ball that isn't a big game breaker but very good at getting the grind-it-out yards that help move this offense down the field. Backing him up is another big back in 6-1, 224-lb. John Tippins. Green has 672 yards on the season and Tippins has almost 500.
UCLA's defense, even with a limited Gesser, has one of its biggest challenges of the season on Saturday. Rodney Leisle, UCLA's huge defensive tackle, returns to the starting lineup and will give the team the depth and fresh bodies it lacked against USC on the DL. Perhaps the biggest challenge falls on UCLA's cornerbacks, senior Ricky Manning (pictured at left) and sophomore Matt Ware. So much of UCLA's game plan against USC depended on the two of them getting the best of USC's receivers, which ended up not being the case. It's also a huge factor here against Washington State. Neither did very well against USC's big receiver, Mike Williams, and now they're facing probably an even better big receiver in Mike Bush.
Ricky Manning has started 43 games in a row, and will be starting his last in the Rose Bowl. Manning is a warrior, and despite the outcome of Saturday's game, deserves all the accolades and respect of UCLA fans for the talent, leadership and desire he provided the UCLA football program for the last four years.
Advantage: With Gesser relatively effective, Washington State; without Gesser, even. As we've repeated, the role of the quarterback here, in a game like this, is huge, and too much to actually measure. Even if Gesser isn't very mobile, we still think that his injured ankle hasn't affected his mind or his passing arm. If he can be just fairly effective for Washington State, the Courgars cleary have an edge. If Kegel has to play, UCLA's chances to stop down Washington State's high-powered attack improve considerably.
PREDICTION: While it's a big quarterback issue, it's also an emotional issue. Washington State, on one hand, is playing for the Rose Bowl. UCLA, on the other, is looking to save face after losing it two weeks ago when it was trounced by its rival USC. The game is going to be the most-watched game in the nation on Saturday afternoon. So, there is quite a bit of motivation on both sides. If there is a bit of an edge emotionally, you'd probably have to give it to the Cougars. Playing for the Rose Bowl is a bigger motivation than playing for just pride. If Gesser shows early he can actually perform, it could jack up Washington State so high that they could possibly roll. If Gesser, or Kegel, looks fairly ineffective, that could be enough of positive to give UCLA an advantage. How both teams come out in the first quarter, and how Gesser looks, will probably set the tone and momentum for the rest of the game.
With Gesser Effective:
Washington State 41
With Gesser Ineffective:
Washington State 17