The UCLA Bruins pack up their 3-3 record and leave sunny California for a 7:30 p.m. PT matchup on ESPN against the Washington State Cougars in what best could be described as a tempest blowing through the rolling Palouse hills on gusts reaching up to 40 miles per hour.
In Pullman, we call this Air Raid Weather ... or You Better Be Ready For Boobie Weather.
UCLA started off the season with a competitive loss to a now really good looking Texas A&M team, and has since picked up comfortable wins against UNLV and Arizona, and an uncomfortable win against BYU, which saw their defense tamp out second half signs of life from the Provo Cougars. The only blemishes on the season come from Stanford, which is looking worse by the week, and ASU, who is surprising a lot of people in what was expected before the season to be a rebuilding year.
In a rather ironic turn of events, Josh Rosen is hurt and UCLA can’t run the ball.
UCLA head coach Jim Mora decided to part ways with offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and his uptempo, vertical deep attack paired with quicks underneath and zone running that was known as the “Nzone Offense.” He happily relocated to College Station and has A&M steam-rolling, and UCLA tried to become Stanford South. Mora wanted a fullback. More tight ends. Smash mouth football that more easily aligned with his pro style, stud quarterback.
UCLA has never had the identity of a bruising, trench-warfare type of team, but there’s a first time for everything.
Former two-year UCLA running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu — who played both fullback and linebacker for USC from 1982-85 -- was promoted to offensive coordinator. Polamalu coached running backs in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans from 2004-09.
The whole premise was to ride a team strength in the power running game behind Nate Starks and Soso Jamabo, keeping Rosen upright and relatively safe in the pocket, rather than mixed in with the zone read schemes of Mazzone’s offense.
There are only two FBS teams that rush for a lower yards per carry average than UCLA: Miami (Ohio) and Texas State.
What has me concerned about the UCLA Bruins
Secondary is first: The Bruins rank 14th in defensive passing S&P+, 30th in Success Rate, and fourth in IsoPPP - which measures how well they limit explosive plays and scoring. They lead the nation with an average six passes broken up per game; are ninth in completion percentage allowed (49 percent); are seventh in pass efficiency defense and fifth in yards per pass allowed (5.5 yards); register an 8.7 percent havoc rate (16th) as DBs; and only give up an average 187 yards per game through the air. They good.
They’ve also been tested: BYU attempted 48 passes, Texas A&M aired it out 42 times and most recently ASU attempted 36 passes.
Not Blessed Rains: WSU played in a ton of bad weather games last year, pretty much every home game except Wyoming and Oregon State was wet and/or cold and/or windy. The optimist would say that experience favors the Cougs over a team that spends most of its time in Westwood; the realist would acknowledge throwing a football in the wind and rain is less than ideal. Fortunately, weather impacts both teams.
Vanderdoes vs Back Up: The Wazzu offensive line is probably the deepest unit on scholarship at Washington State. That’ll be tested with Cole Madison likely out for the game on Saturday. B.J. Salmonsen figures to slide into a starting role, but the Cougs are notoriously versatile along the line and starting five could be shuffled a little to account for the loss of Madison. Whoever steps up will likely see a heavy dose of one of the best interior defensive lineman in the conference, Eddie Vanderdoes. UCLA isn’t particularly adept at sacking the quarterback, but a player of that caliber can always wreck shop in a lot of other areas — including blowing up the very decent Coug zone run scheme — if they aren’t on top of their game.
Matt Cummings, current UCLA student and football writer for the UCLA student-run newspaper Daily Bruin, was kind enough to procrastinate on his studies to answer some of our questions.
What are you most confident about in the UCLA Bruins?
“I do a weekly unit-by-unit report card for UCLA (you can check out my latest one here) and the two position groups that have showed strongly each week this season are the defensive line and the secondary.
“When both end Takkarist McKinley and tackle Eddie Vanderdoes are healthy and on the field, the defensive line is one of the best units in the conference, if not the country. Vanderdoes is a monstrous run-stuffer who demands a double team on every play, lest the offense allow him to immediately win his battle and disrupt whatever plan was in place. McKinley, a former standout high-school sprinter, has the speed to threaten around the edge as a pass rusher and to chase down running backs from the weak side, but also the long arms and strength to control opponents at the point of attack in the run game.
“And the line has a deep stable of productive players around those two stars. Nose tackle Eli Ankou hyperextended his elbow two weeks ago against Arizona, but he was a crucial part of the team’s valiant run-stopping efforts against BYU and Stanford, and end Matt Dickerson is increasingly showing his chops as a run defender as well. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner is the do-it-all guy for the unit, capable of playing inside or on the edge, and he’s developed as a dangerous pass-rusher. The Bruins also have a pair of young, highly-touted linemen in redshirt freshman end Keisean Lucier-South and true freshman tackle Boss Tagaloa that are able to fill in. Lucier-South is still filling out his lean body and learning to utilize his athletic tools, but he has tremendous speed and length, and Tagaloa has been impressive for a true freshman when called upon.
“The secondary is dependable as well. Left cornerback Fabian Moreau, a redshirt senior, has turned into a true lockdown guy. He can be a little grabby and will get called for holding penalties, but he doesn’t get burned, and teams have started to just avoid throwing at him. Junior free safety Jaleel Wadood is in his third year as a starter, and he made the All-Pac-12 second team last season. He injured himself at the end of last week’s game, so we’ll see if he’s out there on Saturday.
“The play of redshirt sophomore Adarius Pickett has been one of the more encouraging developments in the season thus far. Pickett can play nickel cornerback, but the Bruins have also been using him as a safety to great effect. He’s a ball-hawk who already has three interceptions, and a capable tackler as well. Senior safety Tahaan Goodman also sees a good deal of playing time, and though he’s not the most reliable guy in coverage or as a tackler, he’s a huge hitter who can dole out serious punishment. He’s forced two fumbles this year, and gives opposing receivers something to think about when they come over the middle. His tackling style involves him pretty much launching himself head-first at guys, though, so he’s liable to pick up a targeting call at any point. (Editor’s Note: That’s Goodman who hit Falk last year, as shown in the video to the right.)
“One thing to watch is the status of sophomore cornerback Nate Meadors, who sat out last week’s game after injuring himself in pregame warm-ups. Meadors overtook several more experienced players to win the starting job this offseason and has held up well in coverage this season. With Meadors out last week, the Bruins shifted safety Randall Goforth to corner, and while he had a decent game overall, Goforth gave up a couple key plays in the second half, including a touchdown. The absence of Meadors could prove even more damaging against the Cougars’ skilled receiving corps, and Goforth’s tendency to play looser off the line might play into the Cougars’ hands as well.”
What has me confident in the Cougs
Stanford Lite: UCLA averages 2.95 yards per carry and attempts about 33 rushes a game. They are in the triple digit ranks in every single advanced stat rushing metric. WSU stuffs just over 24 percent of all rush attempts at or behind the line of scrimmage, has allowed the 17th fewest rushing first downs, and only allows 116 yards per game.
Ground Raid: Sticking to the non-aerial aspect of offense ... bad weather traditionally means you better have a good running game. WSU has distributed carries pretty evenly between their nouveau riche troika in the backfield; Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks, and James Williams all have around 40 rush attempts this season. BOOBIE is averaging 7.0 yards per carry and gets more than five yards on nearly 49 percent of all his rush attempts.
Dinged up Chosen: We don’t root for injuries, so it’s not good that we don’t get to see what this newly confident defense can do against a great college quarterback in Josh Rosen. Backup Mike Fafaul went in against ASU last week and somehow managed to record a passer rating equal to the UCLA RB yards per carry average on the game: 2.7. He went 3-for-11 for 44 yards and two interceptions. Who knows if that’s who he really is as a quarterback or if the moment just got to him, but it certainly cannot be inspiring to Bruins’ fans.
OFFENSE: The Cougs are in the top 10 nationally in 14 offensive categories:
- Percent of Plays For a TD or First Down (39.6 percent, 8th)
- 3rd Down Conversion (52 percent, 6th)
- Completion Percentage (74 percent, 1st)
- Offensive Explosiveness (21.25 plays per game, 10th)
- Offensive Plays (81, 9th)
- Passing Attempts (51.2, 2nd)
- Passing Completions (37.8, 2nd)
- Passing TDs (3.2 per game, 6th)
- Passing Yards (381.4, 2nd)
- Passing First Downs (18.8 per game, 2nd)
- Scoring Offense (43.8 points per game, 9th)
- Total First Downs (28.2 per game, 2nd),
- Total TDs (5.8 per game, 6th)
- Total Yards (530.6, 9th)
UCLA’s defense is good; let’s see how good. Relying on the weather to get stops for you is a surefire way to get beat by a team that can move the ball whenever, and however, it wants.
What about Wazzu should concern UCLA?
“Realistically, the greatest concern for UCLA this weekend is probably the health of Josh Rosen, but in terms of the challenges presented by Washington State, the passing attack is the obvious answer.
“Yes, the Bruins have been strong against the pass this year – they rank fifth in the nation in fewest yards allowed per attempt – but they’ve yet to play against a truly top-notch air attack. The best passer they’ve faced is probably Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight, who is capable of making plays but also completes just over 50 percent of his passes. In comparison, Luke Falk boasts the nation’s highest completion rate and also protects the ball better than Knight does.
“With a talented trio of receivers on the edges as well, the Cougars will put the Bruins’ defensive backs to the test. Washington State’s passing game is also well-suited to attack UCLA, as the Bruins are excellent at thwarting big plays but stand in the middle-of-the-pack at preventing intermediate gains. So even if UCLA can put up a decent number of points – without Rosen, that would be a big if – the Washington State offense could have success moving the ball methodically through the air.”
How I see the game playing out
This will be a sloppy mess right out the gate as both offenses try to figure out what they can do in the weather. There probably will be a few turnovers.
WSU eventually gets things figured out well enough to make some things happen offensively, jumping out to a two touchdown lead UCLA can never quite make up. I see a defensive battle / offensive strugglefest that is interspersed with a few brilliant drives.
Whether or not Rosen plays, I think the UCLA offense will have a tough time getting much accomplished against the Speed D formerly known as Coug D. They’ll just get less accomplished faster with their back up in the game.
Final Score: WSU 34 - 17 UCLA
And Mr. Cummings...
“It’s tough to predict this game without knowing whether Rosen will be available. If he plays, I think UCLA is the better team, but the drop-off from him to backup quarterback Mike Fafaul is so steep that I find it hard to believe the Bruins can win without Rosen.
“I’m guessing the UCLA defense will give Falk and the Wazzu offense a little trouble, especially early, but the Bruins will probably wear down as the game progresses. Washington State is already one of the better teams in the nation at controlling time of possession, and if Rosen is absent, UCLA will likely have more than its fair share of three-and-outs. I think the Cougar offense will end up scoring around 30 points, and sans Rosen, the Bruins won’t be able to keep up. In our predictions post, I called a score of 28-17 in favor of Wazzu, so I’ll stick with that.
Huge thanks to Matt for lending us his insights this week. You can follow him on twitter here.
See you in a rain jacket in Martin. Go Cougs.