UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin ran all over the Washington State defense a year ago.
The Washington State Cougars look to complete the "sets up for a fast start" part of their schedule by getting their 4th win and actually getting a fast start when they visit the UCLA Bruins this Saturday.
There is an obvious storyline here, and I'm going to run with it. The two Pac-12 coaches whose seats were the hottest coming into the season face off. Thanks to a fast start, Paul Wulff's seat probably feels cooler for the moment. However, six wins and a bowl game was the hypothetical goal for him to keep his job at the start of the season, and the Cougs are still far from there with the tough part of schedule still ahead.
Rick Neuheisel's seat is as hot as ever after a 2-3 start by the Bruins, including lackluster wins over Oregon State and San Jose State. The overall record doesn't seem entirely unexpected, as the losses have come against Texas, Stanford, and Houston. The problem here is that UCLA was able to beat Texas and Houston last year.
So that is the backdrop for this late Saturday night match-up. A game in which folks in the Eastern Time Zone will have the pleasure of staying up until two in the morning on Sunday to watch. I'm looking forward to telling my friends, "Hey, I have to go home now so I can watch a football game on my computer while talking with a bunch of people I've never met." Luckily, they already know I'm full of school spirit (I make one of my friends, who is not a huge football fan, watch WSU highlights each week). I'm debating on whether or not to invite them over to watch the game, because then they will find out I'm just plain bat(bleep) crazy.
Offense/Defense previews after the jump.
OFFENSE: 25.4 PPG, 6.2 YPP, #42 S&P
Pasadena was an absolute nightmare for the WSU front seven a year ago. The Bruins flirted with using the pass early in the game, but realized the Cougs could do nothing to stop them on the ground by the second half. The result was an embarrassing performance against the run, in which UCLA gained 9,567 yards on 16 carries in the fourth quarter alone (estimated).
A year later and the Washington State front seven is considerably better, but the Bruin rushing attack may be improved as well. Last year, they finished #38 in rushing S&P. Through five games this season, they are 13th. Overall they are averaging 5.28 yards-per-carry (sacks removed) and have already amassed over 1,000 yards rushing as a team (again, when removing sacks from the equation...seriously NCAA official stats, we shouldn't have to do that.)
The same guys who left tread marks on the backs of WSU's linebacking corps in 2010 have returned in 2011. Johnathan Franklin is the leading ball carrier so far, but UCLA has split many of the carries with Derrick Coleman (although I have my doubts that the former New Jersey Nets power forward still has eligibility left to play college football...something to keep in mind). Franklin has picked up 399 yards on 65 carries so far this season, while Coleman has 303 on 52. Quarterback Richard Brehaut (that's bree-ho) is also a threat in the option game,
Through the air, Brehaut has been mistake-free and efficient. While his completion percentage isn't great, at 55.4, he is still gaining 8.1 yards per attempt and has yet to throw an interception in 112 passes. His two favorite targets have been Nelson Rosario and Joseph Fauria. Rosario is far and away the most targeted receiver on the team, as 34.8% of passes are thrown his way. He has done well with those targets, catching 59% of them for 9.2 YPT. Fauria, one of the tight ends that had Nusser worried during our podcast, has been targeted 15.2% of the time. He has been the best receiver on the team, catching 70.6% of his targets for a ridiculous-for-a-tight-end 11.5 YPT. Taylor Embree has also done very well with his minimal targets (9.8%) and has put up 10.3 YPT.
UCLA will look to run the ball the bulk of the time. They come into this game with 192 running plays (rushes minus sacks) and 127 passing plays (passes plus sacks). That's almost exactly a 60-40 run to pass ratio for those scoring at home. They are the antithesis of the Cougar offense thus far. Expect that ratio to be even more extreme until WSU proves they can stop the run.
The Bruins' efficiency in the run game has put them among the nation's best on standard downs this season, in which they are ranked 10th. Thanks to Brehaut's improvement, UCLA has not been shabby on passing downs either, where they rank 47th. This game will be a tough test for the Washington State defense, and may give us a good indicator of how much they've improved.
DEFENSE: 33.6 PPGA, 6.1 YPPA, #83 S&P
Do I have you all down in the dumps yet after previewing the offense? Well, there is still hope for WSU in this game, thanks to a bad Bruin defense.
Like WSU's previous opponent, Colorado, UCLA is coming into this game with some injuries in the defensive backfield. Not to the extent that they will be playing wide receivers and running backs at corner, but their best cornerback, Sheldon Price, is listed as questionable. Nickel corner Alex Mascarenas also may not play. The Bruins should be getting safeties Tony Dye and Dalton Hilliard back for this game.
Even before the injuries, UCLA was not great at stopping the pass. They are currently ranked 69th in passing S&P and 77th on passing downs. Opponents are gaining 7.1 yards per attempt. These numbers come with a defensive philosophy entirely different than WSU has seen the last two weeks. The Bruins will not blitz much and rely almost entirely on the front four to generate a pass rush. So far they have not, getting only three sacks in five games. WSU's talented receivers should be able to take advantage of Marshall Lobbestael's extra time in the pocket and find open spaces. Look for Todd Study to call up a heavy dose of pass plays again, especially with UCLA's best secondary player likely out.
If Sturdy chose instead to show some more balance, and keep it on the ground more, that may work out as well. UCLA has not been able to stop the run this season, allowing 5.40 yards per rush. They are ranked 79th in rushing defensive S&P and 80th in performance on standard downs. Some Rickey Galvin, Carl Winston, and Logwone Mitz croutons would make an excellent addition to the Cougar's passing ceasar salad.
A couple UCLA players to watch are linebackers Patrick Larimore and Jordan Zumwalt. Larimore leads the team in total tackes with 38. Zumwalt is second on the team in tackles with 31 and first in tackles for loss with 3.5. With questions in the secondary, and the ineffectiveness of the defensive line, UCLA's linebackers will need to step up.
Washington State should be able to score points on the Bruin defense. This game could be another high-scoring shootout.
The Bruins are in trouble if....WSU has figured out how to slow down the run and forces Brehaut to beat them with his arm.
Football Outsiders' F +/-, which is a combination of their FEI and S&P rankings, has UCLA winning this game by five points. The Bruins have a big advantage being at home for the second straight year, and that may be enough to tip the game in their favor. Both offenses should be able to do well and this will likely come down to the fourth quarter. Hopefully all of us on the East Coast will still be awake and coherent to see the finish.