Washington State packs up its bowl eligibility and heads south to take on No. 19 UCLA this Saturday night. The Cougs and Bruins haven't squared-off since 2012, the first season under Mike Leach, right in the immediate aftermath of Marquess Wilson's sudden departure from the program. This will also be the first time since 2011 that WSU will play in the Rose Bowl, which just announced it will be naming the broadcast level after Keith Jackson.
The Bruins ripped off four straight wins to open the season, including a nail-biter over BYU that went down to the last play, before running into an ASU team that had no business beating them and a Stanford team that decided playing offense was fun. The Bruins have since gone on a three-game winning streak and welcome the Cougs into Pasadena for their last home game of the season, with conference-championship-deciding road trips to Rice-Eccles and the Coliseum looming on the horizon.
Though I didn't have much time to break anything down for you this week, I did have enough time to Google. Here is UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense on Scribd. BruinsNation also had a few fanposts back when Mazzone was first hired that break out his playbook a little: philosophy; snag and quick passing game; zone with bubble. Things have obviously evolved a little since those were written a few years ago, but the concepts are still there. (Fair warning, I didn't fact-check those fanposts that closely).
The game will kick-off at 7:45 PM PT (sorry, East Coast Cougs) on ESPN and will thankfully be called by the not-Rod Gilmore included tandem of Brian Griese (color) and Dave Pasch (play-by-play).
What has me concerned about UCLA
Vertical passing game. The Bruins will attack downfield more aggressively than any team WSU has faced since Cal. UCLA is second in the conference (behind WSU) with 77 passing plays over 10 yards, and has multiple deep threats in receivers Jordan Payton (83.6 YPG) and Thomas Duarte (74.0 YPG) who account for nearly half of the targets in their passing game (24 and 19 percent, respectively).
Payton typically sticks to the outside, but they'll move Duarte into the slot and create major match-up disadvantages against the 6-foot-3, 225-pound receiver. He's dominated deep corner routes from the inside. Shots downfield will almost certainly come by way of verticals, especially after a few bubble screens. They also love to hit big on a play action bomb to the backside post.
WSU has given up the second fewest pass plays over 10 yards (behind UCLA), and are the only team in the conference that hasn't surrendered a pass over 50 yards. That'll be put to the test against UCLA and "Chosen" Rosen.
Generating pressure. ASU was able to get after Rosen a little bit and make him uncomfortable, so was Colorado for that matter, but still the Bruins rank 1st nationally in adjusted sack rate. Rosen is only getting dropped on 3 percent of his pass attempts. A big part of mitigating the effectiveness of a downfield passing game is harassing a quarterback before he's ready to let it rip.
It takes time for players to get behind a defense; get to the QB before his WRs burn your DBs and it doesn't matter how big and fast they are. Wazzu LBs are still close to tops in the nation in havoc rate, ranking 7th, and the defense is above average on both standard (6.2 percent) and passing (8.0 percent) down sack rates. The Bruins are spectacular at keeping their freshman signal caller's jersey clean -- disrupt that, and despite all of Rosen's talent, he's still capable of making freshman mistakes.
Oscar Mike. Unlike the previous few WSU opponents, Rosen is a pass-first guy outside of the pocket. He has great pocket mobility, sliding and stepping up to avoid pressure, and he does extremely well at keeping his eyes on downfield targets when he maneuvers in or bails outside the pocket. He moves to make a throw.
If safeties and backers drop coverage to guard against QB runs on rollouts -- like they've had to the past few weeks --Rosen will make them pay for it. If you didn't know, he was a nationally ranked tennis phenom as a youngster, well, that footwork translates favorably for him (and you'll hear this a half-dozen times Saturday night).
Perkins. Paul Perkins is fourth in the conference in rushing yards per game (106) and averages 6.0 yards per carry. He was a little dinged up a few games ago but appears to be at least close to normal form again now. Behind him is Soso Jamabo, who looks (and runs) just like the two huge ASU running backs the Cougs had problems with last week.
What has me confident about Wazzu
Cool Hand Luke. Falk is having a phenomenal season and he'll have his biggest test yet this Saturday. The UCLA defense gives up the fewest passing yards per game in the conference (199.4), limiting teams to 5.5 yards per reception. The Bruins aren't that great at generating pressure but do have fantastic pass coverage, averaging 6.9 passes defensed a game (3rd nationally) with a passes defensed to incompletion ratio of 42.2 percent (6th nationally).
They get their hands on passes. Even a couple defensive lineman have multiple pass break ups, inflating a statistic that is usually interpreted as a reflection of the secondary. The DL and LB havoc rates are both around average, with the DB havoc rate ranked way lower, at 108th nationally. The Bruins don't give up many home runs but they can be diced underneath, which plays right into Falk's strengths as a passer.
They handled Cal and Jared Goff earlier in the season, but Falk is a little bit of a different beast. He's averaging 18 more attempts and 100 more yards than Goff per game, and has actually completed three more passes than Goff has attempted all season. Falk and the Cougs remain highly ranked in passing success rate (11th) and are more than happy living in the intermediate space of a defense rather than pushing the ball downfield every few attempts.
Homecoming. It's no secret that most Pac-12 rosters are filled with guys from California, and WSU has 35 on the roster playing in front of friends and family for perhaps the first time all season ... or even in their college career. This game has been circled by them for a while. You want motivation to be high and equal for every game, but there's a good chance this one will have a little more juice.
Admiral Ackbar. Way back in our season preview we noticed this had "trap game" written all over it for UCLA. The Bruins are a game behind South leader Utah with a trip to their place on deck, and even (in record) with cross-town rival USC...who's making their trademarked charge after a coaching change and hosts UCLA in the Coliseum to close out the regular season. I don't think anyone (outside of UCLA fans) would blame them for overlooking WSU in this scenario.
How I see the game playing out
This match-up really centers around Falk vs. the intermediate UCLA defense -- and -- Rosen vs. the Wazzu secondary deep. The Cougs have done really well limiting rushing attacks the sort that UCLA deploys, but the Bruin backs are skilled enough to not be completely shut down. They'll get theirs, the real test will be locking down Rosen's passing attack when the Cougs do get those stops.
WSU needs to get out ahead of UCLA and make the scoring pace uncomfortable for Rosen, get him to press, similar to what would've been ideal (and almost happened if they converted TDs in the RZ instead of FGs) against Stanford. Get the Bruins away from feeding Perkins and Jamabo and more into their passing game, forcing a false sense of urgency on the Bruin offense to take more risks, and maybe the defense can be opportunistic enough to steal possessions.
If Rosen is on, the UCLA offense is really tough to defend. Keep him pressured in the pocket and in long 3rd down-and-distance scenarios, and you could start to see him try to force plays and scoreboard watch, like freshman tend to do.
#PAC12AfterDark in a look-ahead trap game? Why not, let's get weird.
Final score: WSU 45 - 41 UCLA
See you guys in the Rose Bowl.