The Washington State Cougars host the UCLA Bruins on Saturday night in Pullman (7:30 pm, ESPN) with each program existing on very different planes. WSU is 3-0, ranked No. 19, and once again looking like a team that will contend for the conference. UCLA is 0-3 and struggling to improve under a coach in his second year with the program.
That coach is Chip Kelly, who once dominated the Pac-12 and made Oregon a nationally relevant program. Things have not gone so well at UCLA, as he is off to a 3-12 start—the worst for a head coach through the first 15 games at the school in nearly a century.
So, we are left with something quite strange: The Cougs are 19-point favorites over the Bruins. It’s just wild to see WSU favored by that much against a Pac-12 team, let alone one from Los Angeles.
Even Bill Connelly’s SP+ projects WSU to win by 17. This is a strange time to be alive. Let’s dig into the key players and trends for the Bruins that will impact their matchup with the Cougs.
When UCLA has the ball..
Kelly was once considered the most innovative offensive mind in college football. Under his guidance, Oregon’s offense became a fast-moving powerhouse. After leaving Eugene for a mostly unsuccessful stint in the NFL, Kelly returned to the college ranks last season, and given that UCLA has generally recruited pretty well (typically top-15 to top-20 nationally) it seemed that he would be able to replicate his previous offensive success.
Through his first 15 games as Bruins head coach, that has not been the case. In 2018, UCLA averaged just 5.52 yards per play, good for 80th nationally. This year? Kelly’s offense is dead last (130th), gaining just 4.11 yards per play.
UCLA ranks 87th in SP+, a number much higher than their non-adjusted stats might suggest because the Bruins played a pair of pretty tough defenses (Cincinnati and San Diego State) in their first two outings. Things didn’t change much when playing Oklahoma—they finished with a third-straight 14-point output.
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has been largely inaccurate, completing just 54 percent of his passes after 58 percent his freshman season. He has attempted just 87 passes through three games, as Kelly’s offense typically emphasizes the run. With those attempts, Thompson-Robinson has logged 556 yards, five touchdowns, and four interceptions. He’s also been sacked nine times.
He will run the ball—22 non-sack rushes through three games. However, those attempts have gained just 45 yards. Oh by the way, he has been sacked nine times—that’s almost one per ever 10 dropbacks.
Demetric Felton, who had been a wide receiver, leads the team in rushing attempts (38), yards (164), and yards per attempt (4.32). However, 23 of Felton’s carries came in the first week when starting running back Joshua Kelley was out. Since Kelley’s return, Felton’s workload has dwindled to 10 carries against SDSU and just five against Oklahoma.
He did show more explosion in the limited carries against the Sooners, putting up 65 yards on five carries. Felton also still produces in the air, having caught 13 passes for 171 yards, both team highs.
Kelley’s effectiveness has significantly dropped from 2018, when he rushed for 1243 yards and 12 touchdowns on 5.52 yards a carry. This season, he has gained just 104 yards and one touchdown on 33 carries. Despite the poor start, Kelly’s still a proven rushing talent and could be a threat for the Washington State defense. His carries will become more frequent as the season goes along, and he should be getting around 20 or more against the Cougs.
The Bruins have spread the ball around pretty well in the passing game, with five players tallying at least five catches and five different players having caught a touchdown. Top pass-catchers include 6’3, 260-pound tight end Devin Asiasi and junior wideout Jaylen Erwin.
While UCLA’s offense has been abysmal, its dedication to running the ball might allow it to limit the number of possessions in this game. The Cougs have allowed teams to move the ball on the ground in spurts—particularly against Northern Colorado and Houston. The Bruins will probably be able to grab some first downs on the ground and chew some clock—something that is not historically Kelly’s modus operandi (remember seven seconds or less between plays?).
However, the lack of a real passing threat downfield will allow Wazzu to cheat on the run, and we may see the Cougar run defense improve as the game goes along.
WSU is probably the worst defense that UCLA will have faced, so the streak of 14-point games might end. The key for the Bruins when they have the may be to put together some long drives, limit possessions, and keep the Cougar offense cold on the sidelines. Houston was able to do that for a half, but Houston featured more dynamic playmakers at multiple positions.
When WSU has the ball...
The Bruins just faced the team that leads the nation in yards per play—Oklahoma. Against the Cougs, they get a break by trying to stop the team with the country’s second-most yards per play.
That’s a rough go for what is likely UCLA’s better side of the ball. The Bruins rank 62nd in defensive SP+, having faced a bad offense (Cincinatti), a dreadfully terrible offense (San Diego State), and a super elite offense (Oklahoma).
UCLA’s yards-per-play allowed has followed suit: 5.6, 4.9, and 9.6 respectively. That makes sense for a defense that is rated roughly average nationally.
However, there’s a major issue for the Bruins hidden inside those yards-per-play numbers. UCLA’s defensive successes have largely come against the run. Against the pass? Not so much.
The Bruin defense has allowed a 71 percent completion percentage and 10.5 yards per pass attempt. The numbers were bad against Oklahoma, of course, but Cincy and SDSU had success in the air as well. The Bearcats averaged 9.3 YPA, while the Aztecs put up 9.5.
Washington State starting quarterback Anthony Gordon is at 10.9 YPA through three games. He has a good shot at maintaining that number against the Bruins.
There’s no dominant pass rusher on UCLA’s defense—they’ve logged four sacks split between four different players so far. Gordon should be kept pretty clean with time to carve up that suspect secondary.
This is where we feel obligated to mention Max Borghi against the UCLA defense. He’ll find a way to get his yardage and probably will happen via the passing game, as long as it isn’t taken away by nonsense penalties.
WSU is perfectly set up to exploit UCLA’s defensive weakness, but let’s try and temper expectations by saying the Bruins’ athletes will be better than what WSU has faced. That could cause some smaller windows, so maybe the Cougs don’t carve up UCLA in the passing game has happened all season.
But maybe they do.
The Bottom Line
WSU is favored big in this game for good reason. The Bruins have been inefficient on offense, and don’t have the type of dynamic quarterback that gave WSU some fits at times against Houston. I’d guess the ceiling for points in this game for UCLA is maybe 28. My median expectation is somewhere around 21. Will that be enough to upset the Cougs?
Highly unlikely, because all signs point to more chunk plays in the passing game from WSU. More big plays on the outside from guys Easop Winston, Jr. and Dezmon Patmon, more open spaces in the middle for Brandon Arconado and more taunting penalty opportunities for Gordon.
The weather should be slightly chilly but otherwise perfect and the crowd will be hyped. It’s looking good for the Cougs to #BeatLA.