Coming off a 45-19 evisceration at Stanford, the UCLA Bruins need a win.
Six weeks into the regular season UCLA sits at 2-3, four wins away from the six needed for a bowl birth and the probable retention of Rick Neuheisel. Where those wins will come from is anyone's guess, but conventional wisdom says one of them should come Saturday against Washington State.
Victorious in a 31-27 comeback win over Colorado a week earlier, the Cougars enter the Rose Bowl this weekend with an offense tied for ninth best in the country. Starting quarterback Marshall Lobbestael has thrown for over 300 yards in his last three starts since replacing an injured Jeff Tuel. WSU has few equals through the air, averaging 379 passing yards per game. In four games played only Oklahoma State has done better.
Lobbestael and Co. will face an injury-riddled UCLA secondary that Andrew Luck deftly exposed at the Farm. Cornerback Sheldon Price and safety Alex Mascarenas will not play Saturday, with fellow safety Tony Dye a game-time decision.
The injuries don't stop there. Linebacker Glenn Love, defensive tackle Justin Edison and guard Chris Ward are likely not to see action this week. Edison is still recovering from a concussion while Love (hamstring) and Ward (shoulder) did not practice this week.
While the game could be decided by the absence of familiar faces, it might also be influenced by a new one. With kicker Kip Smith still out with a hip flexor injury and punter Jeff Locke inconsistent in the role, place kicks under 40 yards will be carried out by Tyler Gonzales. Gonzales, former team manager for UCLA Soccer, could very well be the difference in what looks to be a high-scoring game.
With their only wins coming over lowly San Jose State and Pac-12 doormat Oregon State, UCLA needs a win over a good team to put itself back on track. Beating Washington State would accomplish just that.
Here are four keys to a Bruin victory this weekend.
This will be difficult considering Washington State has significantly improved its protection from a year ago. In 2010 the Cougars allowed almost four sacks per game. This year that number has been reduced to 1.83.
Through five games, pressuring the quarterback has not been one of UCLA's strong points. Many a time has the defensive line achieved penetration at the expense of containment. While the Bruins can sometimes beat an opposing o-line, they often watch as the quarterback escapes the pocket to make a play. We saw this against Stanford most recently, but UCLA has been guilty of letting passers run wild once protection seems to break down.
UCLA ranks near the bottom of the country in sacks, registering only three so far in 2011.
Against a prolific passer like Lobbestael, the Bruins cannot afford to give him time to make plays. In their only loss this year against San Diego State, Lobbestael threw two picks. In their three wins combined he's only tossed one while scoring 11 touchdowns through the air.
The evidence seems clear: Getting Lobbestael to make bad decisions and turn the ball over increases the chance of a UCLA win. To do that, pressure must be applied.
UCLA ranks 29th in the nation in rushing offense, and their two star backs are the reason why.
Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman are the best thunder-and-lightning duo to hit Los Angeles since the days of Reggie Bush and LenDale White.
Franklin provides elusiveness and speed while Coleman is best barreling through the tackles. Separately they're both explosive backs, but when used correctly together they can give defenses nightmares for weeks.
The Bruins are the only team with two rushers in the top 10 in the conference in large part to the success they have had running the ball. A lot of that is built into the pistol offense, which calls for the run to set up the pass.
If UCLA can run the ball effectively on a WSU defense that gives up 127.2 yards per game on the ground, the Bruins will have their offensive answer to the Cougar's aerial threat.
One of the major takeaways from the Stanford loss was not that the Cardinal beat them, but how often UCLA shot itself in the foot by turning the ball over.
Yes, they committed only two turnovers last week, but they did so at extremely inopportune moments. Richard Brehaut fumbled early when the Bruins had a chance to answer a Stanford score, which the Cardinal turned around for seven points.
About to get the ball back having stopped Andrew Luck for the second straight drive, Taylor Embree fumbled away a punt when he could have (and should have) called for a fair catch.
Brehaut has yet to throw a pick this season, so it isn't fantasy to think that UCLA can hold on to the football. They just need to cut the needless turnovers like the Embree fumble to keep Lobbestael away from a short field.
Limiting your own turnovers while causing them on the opposite side of the ball is as sure a path to victory as any in football, and Saturday's contest will be no exception. The Bruins have to take care of the football if they expect to keep the Cougar offense off the field long enough for a win.
The 6'8'' tight end is UCLA's most potent offensive weapon and should be thrown to as much as possible.
After weeks of mysteriously forgetting about Fauria, at Stanford the Bruins suddenly remembered that they had one of the most talented tight ends in college football. The results were unquestionable: three receptions for 43 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Wherever he lines up, Fauria causes match-up problems. He has the speed to elude many linebackers and the strength to make the catch between two defensive backs.
Washington State does not have significant height amongst its linebacker corps or secondary, giving UCLA even more reason to make Fauria a prime target in the passing game.
If UCLA can accomplish what it needs to on the ground, look for Brehaut to find Fauria over the middle for some big plays, especially in the red zone. A good day for Fauria will be a welcome sight in Bruin Nation.
The Bruins come in a three-point favorites, but are already being picked against. Look for a lot of points to be scored by both offenses as they exploit either depleted or mediocre defenses all game long.
Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman should have their way with the Cougar front seven, while Marshall Lobbestael should be able to pick apart the Bruin secondary.
While Washington State is on the upswing, UCLA has more to play for at home and need the win worse. Much will ride on the leg of new kicker Tyler Gonzales for the Bruins as it could come down to a field goal. In fact, I think it will.
UCLA 31, Washington State 28.