The Cougar football team has been having what can safely be described as a "nightmare" year with games that appeared to be winnable, going by the wayside and games that could be competitive, also going by the wayside. But next up on the schedule is UCLA and ever since Wazzu head football coach Bill Doba has been at the helm –whether they have had a winning year or not - the Cougars have had their way with the Bruins.
In fact, the series has produced many memorable moments during those years. In his first year at the helm and coming off a loss to USC, Doba's Cougars beat UCLA handily, 31-13, on their way back into the Top 10 and later, a Holiday Bowl win over Texas. The next year, coming four losses, the Cougars were two-touchdown underdogs as they went into the Rose Bowl. Jerome Harrison touched the ball a school-record 42 times for 247 yards and Wazzu held off a last-minute Bruin two-point conversion attempt for a 31-29 victory. The next year, the Bruins returned the favor as the Cougars built up a seemingly invincible 28-7 second quarter lead, only to watch UCLA come storming back to grab an improbable 44-41 win in overtime in Pullman. Last year, an expected battle between even teams was exactly that at halftime and then turned into a Wazzu rout as the Cougars skunked the Bruins, 23-0, in the second half for a runaway 37-15 victory in Pasadena that gave WSU five of the last six wins in the series.
This year's game features teams on distinctly different paths. While WSU has yet to win a Pac-10 game so far this year, UCLA has won all of theirs and sits tied atop the league standings with 4th-ranked Arizona State as the two teams currently having the inside track to the Rose Bowl. Additionally, the Cougars are coming off a one-sided loss to another conference favorite [5th-ranked Oregon] while the Bruins have just dispatched expected conference title contender, 21st-ranked California, 30-21, to make it a four-team Rose Bowl race [along with 12th-ranked USC].
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The key to UCLA's success has clearly been consistent quarterback play, particularly from junior Patrick Cowan. When Cowan has been down with injury – most recently a hammy – the Bruins have struggled with junior Ben Olson and redshirt freshman McLeod Bethel-Thompson taking the snaps. But with Cowan calling the shots, the Bruins have had strong play – albeit, both at home – in victories over Washington and California.
The Bruin offense has not been overwhelming statistically, like Oregon, but they have been doing just enough of what it takes to win and especially in the conference games where their balanced attack of 216 yards per game passing [featuring Brandon Breazell leading the team] and 181 yards per game rushing [split up between Kahlil Bell and others] is successfully keeping opposing defenses off-balance.
Defensively, the Bruins are the conference's third-best rushing defense – holding opponents to under 80 yards per game – but they have balance on this unit as well. Senior Bruce Davis is picking up where he left off last year and recording 6.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles-for-loss so far just past the midway point in the season and as he showed last Saturday, sophomore defensive back Alterraun Verner knows how to intercept a ball and what to do with it once he's got it.
Special teams is another plus for UCLA as they currently have the nation's second-most accurate field goal kicker in freshman Kai Forbath – hitting 83% of his field goal attempts with a long of 52 yards – and they get plenty of yardage on kickoff returns with Matt Slater doing most of the damage.
All-in-all, the game has the surface appearance of a mismatch, but the Cougars have played well in their lone home conference game of the year so far – a slim, 23-20 loss to conference unbeaten ASU – and there is, of course, that won-loss record. Wihile the outcome is still yet unknown, one thing seems certain, Saturday's game should produce yet more memorable moments in the series.
NCAA Top 25 for UCLA
Kickoff Returns – 24.57 yards per return [20th]
Rushing Defense – 79.57 yards per game [8th]
Field Goals – Kai Forbath – 2.14 per game [2nd]
Scoring – Forbath – 9.43 points per game [19th]
Sacks – Bruce Davis - .93 per game [11th]
WSU continues their football season against UCLA at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 27 at Martin Stadium in Pullman.
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