No longer is Wazzou the designated conference pushover. But have the Cougars improved enough to take down UCLA at the Rose Bowl?
The recent history of the Washington State football program is a story of pain and subjugation. Every conference needs a doormat, a team without talent or hope that exists mostly to cushion the won-loss records of its league-mates, and in the past few years the Cougars have seized that role and taken it someplace truly special. In the first three seasons after Paul Wulff took over as head coach in 2008, the Cougars won a total of five games and just two against Pac-10 opponents. If, like USC or Oregon, you were an elite team with title aspirations, the annual Wazzou game was your chance to slap 50 points on the board and pull your starters in the third quarter. If, like UCLA, you had talent but no clue what to do with it, Wazzou was the one conference game even you couldn't screw up. And if you were an actual Cougars fan, you just closed your eyes and dreamt of the Ryan Leaf years.
Unfortunately for a Bruins squad that'll host their visit to the Rose Bowl this Saturday, the Cougs appear to have grown tired of getting wedgied by the cool kids. They've won three of their first four games this season and last week kicked off their Pac-12 campaign with a road victory in Colorado. It's ungenerous and beside the point to observe that neither the Buffs nor any of the other teams they've beaten (Idaho State and UNLV) is any good. This is Washington State. They're not supposed to win three games a year, let alone in the span of one month, regardless of the competition. Up in the Palouse, progress is afoot.
Their battle with UCLA will help us benchmark how far the Cougs have risen and how steeply the Bruins have dropped. Both teams appear headed for the fringes of bowl eligibility. If UCLA loses, not only does it become basically impossible to imagine a path to the seven wins Rick Neuheisel needs to keep his job, but it'll suggest that like Washington and Stanford before it, Washington State has managed to rebuild faster (and from a worse starting point) than Neuheisel's Bruins. The Cougs could lose on Saturday and still reach the postseason. A win, however, with the Andrew Luck Express coming to Pullman next weekend, would juice the excitement surrounding the program to a level not seen since the 2003 team made the Rose Bowl.
Wazzou's success has been powered by a surprisingly virile passing attack. First-string QB Jeff Tuel threw two passes in the season opener before breaking his collarbone, but backup Marshall Lobbestael stepped into the breach and has played magnificently. The Lobster is averaging over nine yards an attempt and has thrown 13 touchdowns against just three picks. In Marquess Wilson he has one hell of a target. Wilson was an under-the-radar recruit whom no one expected to ring up 1,000 receiving yards as a freshman, as he did last year. This season he's been even better, averaging over 137 yards a game. No doubt he looks forward to padding his numbers against a dismal UCLA defense.
The Bruins' D is getting cut up all sorts of different ways. They don't tackle all that well. They don't flow to ballcarriers. They're not good at blanketing receivers, especially not with cornerback Sheldon Price out of commission with a knee injury. Price, UCLA's best cover man by far, missed the Stanford contest and will almost certainly sit out this one as well. Which means Wilson will operate most of the time against Aaron Hester, who has size and wheels but is usually good for one or two brain-melting errors a game.
An even bigger issue for the Bruins is their near-total inability to pressure the quarterback. It's really kind of shocking: so far this season UCLA opponents have run 165 passing plays but have been sacked just three times. That's one sack for every 55 dropbacks. Part of the problem is that defensive coordinator Joe Tresey never, ever calls a blitz. But it's also that Neuheisel isn't putting his best athletes on the field. When allocating playing time it's rarely a good idea to privilege seniority over talent, but that's what Neuheisel's been doing on the defensive line. Ineffective upperclassmen Nate Chandler, Justin Edison and Datone Jones are seeing too many snaps at the expense of their younger and more dynamic teammates. Dudes like Iuta Tepa, Seali'i Epenesa and Keenen Graham make good things happen when they're in the game, but they need to see more action if the Bruin D is ever going to improve.
At least the UCLA offense is looking functional. Against Stanford it put together four really solid drives. The 19 points the Bruins scored doesn't look amazing, but there were two shanked extra-points and one of those long drives stalled at the Cardinal one-yard line, so they were this close to hanging 28. Though Richard Brehaut isn't setting the world on fire, he's not making drive-killing mistakes either. He's played well enough to put space between himself and backup Kevin Price, which has lent much-needed stability to the attack. The O-line in front of him is doing its job for the most part, and running backs Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman are providing a nice combo punch out of the backfield.
What's needed is a home-run threat in the passing game. Here again Neuheisel is keeping the wrong guys on the bench. Seniors Taylor Embree and Nelson Rosario are getting most of the snaps at receiver. They're big and have decent hands but are no threat to generate magic after the catch. Meanwhile the burners (Josh Smith, Randall Carroll and Shaquelle Evans) cool their heels on the sidelines. They need to be in the game more to lend a vertical element to the attack. And tight end Joseph Fauria, a 6'8" monster who looks like he could play in the NFL right now, needs to be thrown to five or six times a game instead of the zero to three looks he's been getting so far.
On Saturday the offense will have to finish drives with touchdowns because the Bruin kicking game is horrible and getting worse. To bring you up to speed: freshman Kip Smith was named the starter in the preseason but missed two critical kicks in the opening-game loss to Houston. Then he got hurt. Punter Jeff Locke took over placekicking duties and got off to a great start, hitting figgies from 49 and 51 against San Jose State, but since then he's been terrible. Against Stanford he honked the two extra points, and the week before at Oregon State he missed an XP and had a 39-yard field goal attempt blocked. In practice this week Neuheisel has been working out a kid named Tyler Gonzalez. Tyler is a walk-on and a manager for the UCLA soccer team. It looks like he's the best option until Smith gets healthy.
My hope and expectation is that Gonzalez won't be called on to deliver any crucial kicks this Saturday. For all the nice momentum Wazzou has generated with its fast start, they haven't yet faced an opponent with the size and speed of UCLA. Granted, all that size and speed is rarely put to optimal use, but at home it should be enough to get the job done. The Lobster and Wilson will connect on a couple big plays, with the latter going over 100 yards receiving, but the Bruin ground attack will control the game and Brehaut will find Fauria for at least one score. Prediction: UCLA - 35, Washington State - 24.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.