UCLA 101: Cougars are underdogs no more

HEADED INTO PULLMAN this week, UCLA is making its case for the best team that never was. The Bruins have generally outplayed their opponents, yet have consistently found ways to lose. Most of the blame can be laid at the feet of the UCLA offense which much like Stanford, has become overly dependent upon a single player. And that player, Josh Rosen, is questionable for Saturday. The role as favorites has generally suited Washington State poorly in recent years but ...

... But if Washington State can bring the same level of intensity and execution that they brought to Oregon and Stanford, there is every expectation they can extend its three-game winning streak to four.
AT A GLANCE: Cougars (3-2) vs Bruins (3-3)

7:30 p.m. PT

Martin Stadium (32,952)


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Washington State by 5 points (line originally opened with WSU a 1 ½ point favorite).

Washington State won 31-27 in Pasadena in 2015.

UCLA leads 40-19-1.

Cougs 35, Bruins 27

QB Josh Rosen: The second-year sophomore righty was beaten up severely in the loss to ASU, twice having to come out of the game. My guess? I saw no single injury severe enough to keep him from playing this week (though he was holding his right arm close to his body at game's end).  Despite the injuries, Rosen threw for a career high 400 yards on 24-for-43 passing against ASU.

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The conference's golden boy (remember all the non stop preseason Heisman hype on Rosen?) has plateaued a bit in his development in Year Two, putting up numbers essentially on par with his true freshman season. He blames himself for his teams struggles but spotty pass protection, and a ton of drops from his receivers, certainly have not helped. He has completed 59 percent of his throws for 1,915 yards with 10 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in six games.  If Rosen can't go, Mike Fafaul will take his place. The former walk on was 3 for 11 for 44 yards and two interceptions coming off the bench in Tempe.

RBs Nate Starks and Soso Jamabo: Starks and Jamabo are not the same kind of talent WSU faced with Royce Freeman and Christian McCaffrey, but they should not be struggling as badly as they are -- and the worry for Cougar fans is with Jim Mora calling out the running backs, offensive line and well, pretty much anyone including the water boy, this could be the week the Bruin running attack wakes up. The two 'backs are averaging just 3.5 yards per rush and 82 ground hashes per game combined.

WR Kenneth Walker III: Walker is UCLAs top receiver and falls into the deep threat category, but that assessment is somewhat overstated. He averages just 54 receiving yards per game.

Where in recent years it felt like most Pac-12 teams were attempting to mimic Oregon, this season it feels like more programs are copying the Stanford template -- and UCLA is one of them. The Bruins rely on multiple formations with extra blockers to try to get teams to over-commit to the run, and then they try to beat them over the top with the pass.

I think the Bruins really do want to play more old school, smash mouth football but the problem is they have no running game to build it around. The Bruins rank dead last in the conference in rushing, and that puts all the pressure on Rosen. The Bruin QB is undoubtedly a talented passer and UCLA will run a lot of multiple receiver formations to support him against WSU, but talent is lacking at the position.

Overall the Bruin defense keeps this team in a position to win but much like Stanford, they just aren't putting many points on the board. Mora is not likely on the hot seat, but new OC Kennedy Polamalu definitely is.

As with Stanford, the Bruins have a fairly predictable offense anchored around one star player. Instead of Christian McCaffrey, the Cougars task this week is to attack and disrupt Rosen (I'm assuming he plays and Mora is going to try to keep WSU guessing as long as he can). The UCLA offensive line did not handle shifts and pressure well at ASY, and that is right in the Cougs' wheelhouse.

Key Stat
2.9 yards per rush: The Bruins lack an elite playmaker who can overcome lackluster run blocking.

DT Eddie Vanderdoes: At 6-3, 325 pounds Vanderdoes is one of the biggest and most dominant linemen in the conference. He missed all of last season with a knee injury. Consistent double teams have limited his production, but his presence frees up others.

LB Jayon Brown: The Bruins use him the way they used Myles Jack. He is UCLA's leading tackler but solid in intermediate pass coverage as well.

FS Jaleel Wadood: An all-conference selection last season. He may be undersized at 175 pounds but he plays with a particular brand of nastiness that permeates this secondary.

SS Tahaan Goodman: A vicious hitter who leads the team in forced fumbles.

UCLA runs a similar 4-3 defense as Stanford, but without the holes in the secondary. My biggest observation about the Bruins is that they are head hunters (and fans will no doubt remember last year's WSU-UCLA game where Luke Falk took shots to the head from the Bruins that went unflagged).  A concerning number of quarterbacks and receivers are getting hurt against the Bruins. UCLA hasn't faced any elite passing offenses, but their pass defense numbers are still impressive.

The Cougs should approach this game much the way they did against Stanford, but with more respect for the secondary. UCLA has tons of speed and athleticism and they go for the big play. The first priority is not to give the ball to them and let UCLA capture momentum and/or undo a lot of good work with one bad decision. WSU's patient and methodical offense should be effective enough to outscore UCLA's -- unless the Cougs stop themselves. 'Calling the Cougar run game, calling the Cougar run game. You have a call waiting for you on the powder blue courtesy phone.'

Key Stat
No. 7 nationally in pass efficiency defense: Teams have not been able to throw the ball on UCLA, but it should be noted that the Bruins faced backup quarterbacks the last two games ... and both of them got knocked of the game as well.

J.J. Molson is ranked 27th nationally in field goals made (9 of 14).  But who cares? As we all know, kickers are overrated.

-UCLA's loss to Stanford was a blunder, but the loss to ASU last week was ridiculous. The Sun Devils were down to their third string QB (technically fourth string as Bryce Perkins was lost preseason). Meanwhile, they looked utterly helpless offensively. The Bruin defense generated eight three-and-outs and three turnovers, but the offense did nothing with them. 

-From an outsider perspective, UCLA looks like a team on the brink of meltdown to me. The mood around Westwood is one of frustration and fingers are starting to be pointed.  At the top of it all is the most emotional, explosive coach and cockiest quarterback in the conference. Mora has always been a hothead, in my view, and his reputation for calling players and staff out in public dates back to his day(s) with the Seahawks. But he has taken it up a notch this season. I don't know if the pressure of underperforming combined with the media roasting him (both in LA and on a national level) after nearly every loss is getting to Mora, but he looks really burned out. 

-The WSU-UCLA series in (relatively) recent times has been marked by long stretches uphill and downhill. The Cougars' win over UCLA last season was the first in eight years (though WSU didn't play UCLA every season).  WSU had generally performed well against UCLA during that stretch but a defeat is a defeat. Meanwhile, from 1994 to 2007, the Cougars went 10-3 against the Bruins. 

- I can't remember Leon Bender who said it, Leon Bender but there was Leon Bender that old quote Leon Bender about how UCLA is where high school All-Americans go to get soft.  (Still miss you, Leon).  The soft part of that quote really rang true for a lot of years and set the tone for how to game plan for the Bruins.  

I'm not sure how much of the "soft" applies this season, that Bruin secondary really looks to bring the lumber, but UCLA is a program that generally passes on the California players that WSU recruits (while UCLA themselves for a long time only landed players passed over by USC).  In some years, the end result has been interpreted by fans and media alike as UCLA fielding a mix of cocky and insecure, a group that doesn't play well against a team that resents them personally. Cougars like Gabe Marks, River Cracraft and Gerard Wicks, as just a few examples, were thrilled last season to finally see the UCLA game reappear on WSU's schedule for the first time since 2012. I doubt any of the Bruins can say the same about facing Wazzu. And I think that also plays right into WSU's hands.

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