Two teams with first-year coaches will square off when Jim Mora and the No. 17 UCLA Bruins travel to Pullman to duke it out with Mike Leach and the Washington State Cougars.
Expectations were high across the Pac-12 conference this season with a number of notable big names coming into head coaching jobs. There was Rich Rodriguez at Arizona and Todd Graham at Arizona State, but the coach that has had the most success so far is Mora. He has transformed his UCLA squad into an offensive juggernaut that posted a 66-10 win last weekend against Rodriguez's Wildcats.
"The effort was good but the effort is expected to be good. That's what we're trying to establish as our standard," Mora said of his team's performance against a then No. 24 ranked Arizona squad.
Whatever standard Mora has set thus far has been a very good one as the Bruins has already eclipsed the win total of last season and with one more win would have the most victories in a season for UCLA since 2005.
There was also a lot expected in Pullman with the hiring of the offensive architect behind the Texas Tech powerhouses of recent memory. Thus far Leach has not delivered. The Cougars have struggled to grasp Leach's offensive system and for that the team is just 2-7 this season. including a current six- game skid. Washington State is currently last in the Pac-12 standings with a mark of 0-6. Leach clearly took over a work in progress, the Cougars had won four or fewer games in each of the previous four seasons, but the results this season have still been disappointing.
In the all-time series UCLA has a 10-8-1 edge over the Cougars in games played in Pullman. In the overall series UCLA has dominated even more with a 39-18-1 mark against the Cougars since the teams first squared off in 1928.
Who would have guessed that Mora, a former NFL defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator, would have turned UCLA into one of the most lethal offensive teams in the country? UCLA is the third best offensive team in the Pac-12 in terms of total yards (514.9 ypg). That is also the 11th best mark in the nation as a whole and makes the Bruins one of just 11 teams putting up more than 500 yards of offense per game.
All of that offensive success has come with a redshirt freshman at the helm. Brett Hundley has been as dangerous an offensive weapon as there has been in the Pac-12 this season. The quarterback has thrown for 2,478 yards, while completing 67.9 percent of his passes. He also has 21 touchdowns to eight interceptions with his touchdown total third in the conference behind more heralded names like Matt Barkley (30) and Marcus Mariota (22). Hundley is also not afraid to run with 283 yards and six touchdowns on the season.
Hundley isn't even the most important offensive threat for the Bruins. That title belongs to running back Johnathan Franklin, who has piled up 1,204 yards and eight touchdowns this season. He is the second leading rusher in the Pac-12. Franklin rumbled his way to 162 yards and two touchdowns in the win over to become the all-time leading rusher at UCLA.
"It's a great feeling. All praises to my teammates," Franklin said of the accomplishment. "All those guys open up the big holes, and I just run through them. I was just thinking about doing whatever I can to help my team win. That helped contribute to the team."
Hundley and Franklin's exploits have largely overshadowed those of the rest of the offensive contributors. Shaquelle Evans (36 receptions, 531 yards, 2 TDs) and Joseph Fauria (27 receptions, 347 yards, 8 TDs) would be chief among those players.
While the offense has been busy burning up the competition, Mora's defense has not ascended as quickly. The Bruins are by no means a terrible defensive team, ranking seventh in the Pac-12 in total yards (398.4 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (23.4 ppg), but there is still a great deal of room for improvement. Nowhere would UCLA benefit from improving upon more than in the red zone where teams are scoring at an 89.3 percent rate this season, second worst in the Pac-12. Big plays have also hurt UCLA with the team giving up the second most plays of 30 or more yards in the Pac-12 (23).
Eric Kendricks certainly doesn't have to change much though. Kendricks was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after his efforts against Arizona when he recorded 11 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. Kendricks is the leading tackler for the Bruins this season (87). Anthony Barr (14.0 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks), Datone Jones (12.0 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks) and Cassius Marsh (7.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks) have made a habit of getting into opposing backfields.
The real story for the Washington State Cougars this week is the suspension of star wide receiver Marquess Wilson. One of the few consistent offensive performers on the team, Wilson was suspended for undisclosed reasons and it has been rumored that he has even left the team for good. Losing Wilson, who leads the team in just about every receiving category including receptions (52), yards (813) and touchdowns (five) is particularly devastating for a team that relies so heavily on the pass.
It is common knowledge that Leach's 'Air Raid' offensive strategy is just as pass-reliant as it sounds but few could have guessed just how dismal the run game would be in its wake. Washington State is not only the worst rushing team in the Pac-12 but in the country with just 262 yards on the ground total this season.
However unlike at Texas Tech, the overlooking of the run game by Leach has not been able to be wiped away by stellar play under center. It has been a see-saw battle all season between Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday for the starting gig at quarterback. At the start of the season it was Tuel. Then Halliday took over and now the job seems to be Tuel's again.
Tuel got the start last week against Utah and completed 23-of-45 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown. Tuel didn't get a ton of time to throw in the game as he was sacked six times. Halliday still had nine pass attempts in the game and its unlikely that Tuel has taken the job for good. A look at Tuel's numbers (63.9 completion percentage, 1,543 yards, 8 TDs, 5 INTs) in comparison to Halliday's (52.6, 1,375 yards, 9 TDs, 11 INTs) would lend the advantage to Tuel.
With Wilson out, the secondary receivers will have to step up. Brett Bartolone is second on the team in receptions (42, 330 yards) but is averaging only 7.9 yards per catch. Gabe Marks (38 receptions, 477 yards) and Isiah Myers (37 receptions, 380 yards, 4 TDs) are more likely to fill the void.
Defense has also been a weakness for the Cougars this season. Washington State has been the third-worst team in the Pac-12 in both total yards (437.9 ypg) and scoring defense (31.8 ppg). The Cougars are also near the bottom of the conference in turnover margin (-7) rarely being able to force as many mistakes on defense as its offense commits.
Deone Bucannon has been an anomaly for the defense, snagging four interceptions this season while leading the team in tackles with 76. Travis Long has also managed to put together a very solid season with 59 tackles and team-leads in tackles for loss (10.0) and sacks (7.5).