UCLA Football: 5 Keys to Victory at Washington State

Jeff Poirier@@JJPoirCorrespondent INovember 9, 2012

UCLA Football: 5 Keys to Victory at Washington State

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    The No. 18 UCLA Bruins (7-2, 4-2 Pac-12) are set for a road trip to Pullman to take on the Washington State Cougars (2-7, 0-6 Pac-12) on ESPN2 on Saturday.

    UCLA looks like a surefire pick to win big, but the Cougs will definitely be ready to play, trying to save face in a season wrought with controversy.

    The Bruins have a number of challenges to overcome in game preparation, as the personnel and weather in Pullman remain relative unknowns.

    But Jim Mora and Co. have had success so far this season, so you have to think they'll be able to get the young Bruins focused on the task at hand.

    What will it take for UCLA to head into Martin Stadium and come away with the victory?

    Here are five keys to the Bruins' must-win matchup with Wazzu on the Palouse. 

Respect the Cougars

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    To put it lightly, the Washington State football team has struggled this season.

    Through nine games, the Cougs are winless in conference play, including an embarrassing fourth-quarter collapse at home against Pac-12 doormat Colorado.

    But lackluster play isn't the only thing holding Wazzu back, as dissension in the locker room has gotten Mike Leach's team the worst kind of national publicity.

    The unrest in Pullman reached a head when WR Marquess Wilson, the Cougars' leading receiver and senior superstar, stormed out of practice and was suspended indefinitely.

    Considering UCLA's skyrocketing stock, it would seem that the Bruins are poised for a big win over a troubled Wazzu squad.

    But don't let them hear you say it.

    Everyone in the UCLA program, from coaches to starters to the scout team, has been saying the right things this week in practice.

    In a report from ESPN Los Angeles, Jim Mora and freshman QB Brett Hundley dismissed questions about the Bruins' perceived advantage over WSU.

    "That stuff doesn’t matter to us," Mora said. "Once you let temperature, environment and the psyche of another team bother you, you’ve got issues. So we don’t address it. It doesn’t matter to us. It’s not in our orbit. We don’t care. We’re worried about the UCLA Bruins." 

    Quarterback Brett Hundley said,"We know that we have to come in to every game and play it like every team is the same. The way I like to say it is, 'We don’t play the record, we play the team.' So we have to come out and play our game no matter who we are playing against."

    While every team knows how to employ coach-speak to advantage, it looks like UCLA actually believes its own message. 

    If UCLA shows up to play in Pullman, the game shouldn't be close.

    But if the Bruins get caught sleeping like they did in Berkeley, the Cougs' offense will be ready to light it up. The WSU passing attack ranks No. 2 in the conference and No. 11 in the country.  

Eliminate Penalties

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    First-year head coach Jim Mora has done an amazing job so far in Westwood, but there's one facet of the game that the Bruins haven't been able to figure out yet.

    UCLA currently ranks last in the Pac-12 in penalties, averaging 85.9 yards lost per game, a nasty habit that has continued to rear its head in 2012.

    Last week against Arizona, the Bruins drew 13 flags for 134 yards. And while the Bruins still managed to win by 56 points, those kind of infraction numbers won't do very well against talented defenses like USC and Stanford.

    In UCLA's two losses this season, penalties played a crucial part, giving the Oregon State and Cal offenses second chances and extended drives.

    This week, the Bruins will head into hostile territory to face a frustrated Washington State team that'll be looking to play spoiler in front of a national TV audience.

    Emotions could be running high, but the last thing UCLA needs is a slew of ugly penalties that keep the Cougs' offense on the field.

    If UCLA can play disciplined, error-free football, the Bruins should leave Pullman with the W and a clear path to the Pac-12 title game. 

Win the Turnover Margin

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    Everyone knows how important the turnover margin is in football.

    Even people who watch the Super Bowl just for commercials know the significance of a well-timed interception or fumble recovery.

    Turnovers often mark that moment when a crowd can be silenced and momentum can shift drastically the other way.

    So, needless to say, whichever team can cause more mistakes over the course of a game is likely to come out ahead.

    Defensively, UCLA has been among the best in the country producing takeaways, ranked No. 14 with 22 forced turnovers.

    But on offense, the Bruins have struggled to maintain possession, giving up the rock on 18 occasions in 2012.

    Washington State has been horrendous with turnovers this year, tied for No. 102 in the nation with a -7.0 turnover margin.

    The Cougars have lost the ball 21 times, 16 by way of the INT, which bodes well for UCLA's ball-hawking secondary.

    If Andrew Abbott, Sheldon Price and the rest of the Bruin defenders can jump on WSU from the get-go, the UCLA offense will have a chance to sew it up early.

    But if the Bruins, who will most certainly be running a lot in Pullman, struggle to hold on to the ball, the Cougs will have a good shot to force some turnovers and get their offense on the field. 

Own Time of Possession

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    Time of possession is one of those stats that you don't hear too much about, but for UCLA it will be the key to slowing the Cougs' potent passing attack.

    Last week, UCLA dominated Arizona in possession time, holding the ball for 33:14. To start the game, the Bruins exploded for a 21-0 lead before the Wildcats managed a first down.

    That kind of defensive dominance will be paramount in Pullman, as UCLA will need to prevent big plays in the passing game to stay on top.

    The longer the Bruins' offense can stay on the field, the better their chances to shut down the Cougs. 

    Given UCLA's grind-it-out, run-first approach and Wazzu's pass-happy air raid, the possession battle appears to be in the Bruins' favor.

    Redshirt senior RB Johnathan Franklin should be able to put up another monster game, as the Cougars rank No. 91 in the nation in total defense and No. 76 against the run.

    If Franklin can continue his high level of play, fighting for extra yards on every down, the Bruins should be able to eat the clock, get their defense plenty of rest and keep the WSU offense out of rhythm.   

Hold Serve on Special Teams

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    Another area of concern for UCLA this season has been on special teams, where the Bruins have fallen victim to ugly turnovers and momentum-killing penalties.

    UCLA has coughed it up on four punt return attempts, including one that was recovered for a touchdown in the end zone.

    The Bruins have also developed a habit of committing penalties in the return game, nullifying big gains and losing ground in the field position battle.

    The Bruins can't afford to beat themselves, especially in a game where weather conditions could contribute to ball security issues.

    One sign of life for UCLA on special teams has been the progress of kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn. The true freshman out of Honolulu has improved every week since a slow start in September.

    Last week at the Rose Bowl, Fairbairn tied a school record with a perfect 9-for-9 mark on extra points. He also chipped in his only field goal attempt of the game, a 25-yarder that gave UCLA a 45-3 lead.

    If Fairbairn continues his progress, the Bruins' advantage in the kicking game will extend beyond the unwavering dominance of senior punter Jeff Locke.

    Securing the ball on punts, avoiding penalties on kick coverage and splitting the uprights consistently are all keys to the Bruins' success in the third phase of the game.

    With some tough games to come down the stretch, it would be a huge boost for UCLA to have stability from the special-teamers.

    For more information on this game, follow this link to a complete guide preview!