Midterm exam day for Cougar D

THE WASHINGTON STATE DEFENSE has been preparing for UCLA since the day last season ended. Well, maybe not literally, but figuratively and in every other sense of the word.

That's because the top priority for the Cougs as stated by head man Paul Wulff and defensive coordinator Chris Ball way back in December was clear -- stop the run. There were other areas of work with regard to the defense, sure, but none drew more focus than fixing the run defense.

And now, today, the Cougs head into UCLA with the Bruins boasting the second best rushing attack in the Pac-12.

In part, that's because UCLA runs it no matter what the down-and-distance, or game, situation.

Trailing 31-14 to Houston? Who cares. UCLA still ran it 42 times in that loss -- and it was the run that brought them almost all the way back, with the final margin 38-34.

In a lackluster win over San Jose State, UCLA had 42 carries. In an embarrassing 49-20 loss to Texas, the Bruins ran it 34 times against only 26 pass attempts. Against Oregon State? Try 49 rushes, 12 passes. Even in getting blown out 45-19 to the Cardinal last week, UCLA still stubbornly ran it nearly 30 times and gained nearly 150 ground hashes.

An extra running dimension for UCLA also comes via the QB, who will regularly take off on designed runs on passing downs, letting the Bruin receivers try to clear out the traffic underneath.

UCLA IS GOING to get their rushing yards today. But Wazzu cannot let the Bruins turn those rushing yards into long, sustained drives -- points or no points. If that happens, the Cougs, like any team, will likely tire. Even if the WSU offense does their job in putting points on the board, the D will have an uphill climb in trying to hang on late if they let UCLA move the chains too often.

But if Wazzu incorporates all the lessons of this offseason, if they realize today all the hours of study and practice and hard work and sweat, then today in Pasadena could mark the most important in-season benchmark yet of the Cougs' resurgence.

It won't be easy, the Bruins have not one but two good backs and a punishing o-line. No one else has really been able to stop the UCLA running game, even in victory. And UCLA is playing better than they were at the outset of the season.

It also wouldn't be surprising to see the Bruins perhaps try a little trickery at the start -- to come out throwing early, try and surprise the Cougars by doing something unexpected and then shift into low gear with the power running game and a lead before WSU can get settled.

But the Cougars are not without their own weapons on defense.

And if that D stands up, especially if they stop UCLA and/or force a turnover early, if they don't get sucked into UCLA's misdirection plays -- if they dictate the pace the way the Cougar offense does, then Saturday in the Rose Bowl will belong to the Cougs.

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