This Saturday will mark the midpoint of the college football season. As midpoints go, there may be no more important week in terms of the overall landscape of the Pac-12, with one matchup in particular to watch: UCLA at Washington State.
As unlikely as it may seem for the Cougars to be in legitimate contention for the conference crown, it is equally as vexing to see UCLA on the brink of elimination in another disappointing year under Jim Mora.
This is a do-or-die game for both teams, barring a miracle – which does not come in short supply in the Pac-12, yet can’t ever be anticipated.
Lose, and UCLA will fall well behind in the Pac-12 South, stuck at 1-3 and hopelessly looking up at Arizona State, Colorado, Utah and even perpetually bizarre USC. A loss for Wazzu could create self-doubt among the Cougars; it would more concretely force them to stay one game within Washington so that their must-watch rivalry game with the Huskies can decide the Pac-12 North. Washington is without a shred of doubt the best team in the conference, but if the Cougars lose this weekend, they might not be able to catch their neighbors in the Evergreen State.
But a win – oh, what a win could do, especially for the Cougars. It’s odd that the two hottest teams in the country reside in the state of Washington, which has not been known for excellent football of late. It is, however, difficult to argue with the numbers that are so lopsidedly in favor of Washington State.
After an ignominious opening to the season, in which it suffered losses to an (admittedly strong) FCS team in Eastern Washington and then to Boise State, Wazzu has rebounded by pounding Idaho, Oregon and Stanford by a combined score of 149-55. In the process, it has either shifted its identity or found a new one: The Cougars have taken to the ground.
Quarterback Luke Falk has still been spectacular, but the onus on him to put up gaudy numbers each night has been significantly relieved by a three-pronged rushing attack. A – perhaps intentional – side effect has also been a reprieve for the defense, which is now backing up an offense that controls the clock and pace of the game with a more consistent rushing attack.
Prior to the season, this weekend’s matchup with UCLA would have seemed a daunting one. Josh Rosen was expected to be one of the finest quarterbacks in the nation, and the defense, with Eddie Vanderdoes back in the lineup, was supposed to be stout. Now Rosen, after suffering a pair of unspecified injuries to Arizona State a week ago, may not play at all, and that defense has been less than advertised. If Washington State’s previous three point totals – 56, 51, 42 – suggest anything, it’s that a porous UCLA defense will be fully exploited.
The Cougars’ defense has been surprisingly effective this season, limiting Royce Freeman and Oregon to just 33 points and Christian McCaffrey and Stanford to only 16. Meanwhile, Rosen didn’t take a single snap in Wednesday’s practice. The Bruins’ offense was mediocre at best even with a healthy Rosen. With backup Mike Fafaul under center, mediocre would be an accomplishment – but it won’t be nearly enough.
Washington State could very well deliver the knockout punch to UCLA on Saturday, and in doing so, set up a spectacular clash with in-state rival Washington at the end of November.
The Cougars have never won the Pac-12 North. The Pirate, Mike Leach, is on the verge of taking his program in the Palouse to uncharted waters.