As they ride a three-game winning streak up north to Berkeley, the UCLA Bruins have as much momentum as ever in 2010.
The football team, fresh off of a two-week stretch that saw them beat a pair of ranked opponents in No. 23 Houston and No. 7 Texas, provided more drama on Oct. 2 than their fans cared to endure in their recent victory over 1-4 (0-2, Pac-10) Washington State.
But the benefit of hindsight enables Bruin Nation to instead view Saturday’s near-disaster against Wazzu as an inspiration for improvement, as the win provided a landmark moment that the stout defense can point to when it needs to make a stop against tougher opponents coming up on the schedule.
With the game tied at 28 at the start of the fourth quarter, Washington State was denied the lead when the offense failed to score from the one-yard line on four consecutive attempts.
The fourth down stop that ultimately broke the Cougars’ backs will be an example of success that the defense draws from when it faces similar short-yardage situations against Cal, Oregon, and USC.
If you were simply watching the WSU/UCLA matchup as a casual spectator on Saturday, you may not have been able to tell which team the sports books favored by almost four touchdowns.
Last week’s game in Pasadena was both exciting and competitive, but exciting and competitive is not what Bruin fans have in mind when they see lowly Wazzu, a program that has won one of its last 19 conference games, on the home schedule.
Coming off an improbable blowout win over Texas, UCLA fans smelled Cougar blood in anticipation of an even more lopsided victory than the 34-12 drubbing the upstart Pac-10 program dealt the Longhorns on Sept. 25.
But, in an effort to keep their tumultuous football history in perspective, Bruin Nation somehow knew deep down that a letdown against a vastly inferior opponent the following week was possible.
UCLA’s historical trend of following a hard-fought, successful effort with a lackluster performance (e.g. BYU in 2008 after a shocking win at Tennessee a week before) is disturbing for Bruin Nation to stomach on a semi-regular basis, but the program avoided national humiliation when it pulled out the 42-28 win over Washington State.
Of course, the downtrodden Cougars from Pullman, Wash. are a far cry from the No. 18 Cougars that embarrassed the Bruins over two years ago in Rick Neuheisel’s first year as UCLA head coach.
But despite the gaping difference in quality between BYU’s 2008 bowl-bound team and Wazzu’s 2010 program, the lesson remains the same: Don’t get complacent after an unexpected victory when there’s plenty more football to be played.
Although no Bruin fan is proud to admit that the WSU game was closer than the final score would indicate, the dramatic switch of momentum which followed the fourth quarter stop from the one-yard-line provided all the momentum UCLA would need to step up and take control from that point on.
The critical fourth-down tackle on running back James Montgomery sent a message all the way down the roster that this Bruin team is not about to rest on its laurels.
In light of the Wazzu win, many positives can be drawn from the game as the Bruins advance towards the most challenging stretch of their schedule.
QB Richard Brehaut played reasonably well in place of Kevin Prince, who is still battling a knee injury. Credit to Neuheisel for not rushing his starter back to action too early, and giving Brehaut an opportunity to mature against a beatable opponent.
The backup’s passing numbers (12 of 23 for 128 yards) are by no means spectacular, but they’re a notable improvement over Prince’s 27 passing yards on eight attempts against Texas.
A first-quarter fumble marred Brehaut’s performance, but the “pistol” offense that UCLA has employed this season doesn’t require as much participation from the quarterback position as other offensive schemes across college football.
Brehaut managed the WSU game just fine, was able to spread the ball around to eight different receivers, and shouldn’t inspire the same levels of panic from Bruin Nation if he is called into duty in the future.
RB Johnathan Franklin’s torrid season continues. The sophomore ranks No. 6 in the NCAA with 625 rushing yards, and shredded Wazzu to the tune of a career-high 216 yards on Saturday; both he and Derrick Coleman (185 yards, three TD, 12.3 YPC) dominated the Cougars on the ground, but will have a much tougher test at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley on Oct. 9.
Cal ranks No. 15 in total defense, a stark contrast to Washington State’s rank of 118 out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
In other words, one shouldn’t expect the Bruins to rack up 437 yards rushing against the Golden Bears like they just did at the Rose Bowl.
UCLA needs to find a way to beat a Cal team that’s mired in a two-game losing streak and still licking its wounds after a heartbreaking 10-9 slugfest at Arizona.
A key difference in the upcoming matchup would be that the Bruins are brimming with both confidence and momentum, while the Golden Bears are scrambling for a hint of either.
To make matters worse for Cal, their football team is facing the second pistol offense in three weeks. Nevada, the program that deserves credit for introducing the option-style offensive scheme to the college football landscape, churned out 316 yards rushing in a 52-31 Berkeley beatdown back on Sept. 17.
Cal’s recent struggles against the pistol, coupled with its upcoming game against the Bruins, would indicate that the matchups favor UCLA, but defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough knows that he too will face challenges on the other side of the ball.
Washington State sophomore Jeff Tuel threw for a season-high 311 yards and tied a career high with two TD strikes on UCLA’s typically stingy pass defense on Oct 2.
Bullough needs to eliminate gaps in the secondary in preparation for a much more experienced signal-caller up north.
Senior quarterback Kevin Riley is a proven passer who has already beaten the Bruins two years in a row. UCLA’s defense yielded an average of 43 points and a total of five touchdown tosses to the Cal QB in their 2008-09 contests.
Bullough will undoubtedly be studying game film from the 10-9 Arizona victory so he can orchestrate the right schemes to neutralize Riley and the Cal offense.
If Berkeley falls prey to the pistol once again, UCLA would be just one game behind first-place Oregon (assuming the Ducks beat Wazzu on Oct. 9) in the Pac-10 standings by the time the two schools face off in a couple of weeks.
If CRN can devise a successful plan to bring to Autzen Stadium in Oregon on Thursday, Oct. 21, then the Bruins will become a legitimate factor in the Pac-10; at one point during the season, they were essentially left for dead after getting steamrolled 35-0 by Stanford on Sept. 11.
But let’s not all get caught looking ahead to next week.