Washington State is going through a transition in 2012, much like we are. And, much like we are, that transition is a direct result of piss-poor football.
Except they’re worse than we are, believe it or not. UCLA managed to go from middling football program to damn near the bottom tier under Rick Neuheisel, but Wazzu football has been living in that bottom tier — and even well below it sometimes — for five years.
That’s probably changing, though, for both teams. UCLA has gone through the necessary tedious work to consider the Jim Mora era a true transition rather than some sort of continuation of the last regime. Meanwhile, Wazzu has Mike Leach, a coach that UCLA didn’t push for hard enough and may have landed had they done so. Bruins fans wanted a big name, highly-coveted head coach, and Mike Leach was at the top of every Bruins’ fans wishlist.
We got Jim Mora now, though, and Wazzu landed Mike Leach. If you asked anyone who knew anything about college football, they’d tell you Wazzu got the better end of the deal here. But if you ask Washington Husky and UCLA fanatics, they’d have a hard time betting against Mora, who seems out to prove everyone wrong with reckless abandon.
Wazzu Offense vs. UCLA Defense
Last season, Washington State was absolutely incredible through the air. The team threw for 322 yards per game, good for top ten in the nation. And despite the departure of QB Marshall Lobbestael, the team has some really solid options at QB with Connor Halliday and Jeff Tuel. Wazzu fans are pretty excited about that position battle and some might say there is no real bad choice to be made.
That’s also because the Wazzu passing game will now employ a Mike Leach offense, which will piss the hell out of opponents. What’s worrisome is that Wazzu has the personnel to put together another top-tier passing game — Wazzu still has Marquess Wilson, who put up a monster, 82-catch, 1400-yard, 12-touchdown season in 2011 — and now it has a mastermind to lead them there.
But the running game is still a question mark and no one knows if that offensive line is going to hold up long enough for whatever QB that starts to be effective. Last season, Wazzu let up 40 total sacks, which is over three per game, crappy enough for 116th in the nation. Meanwhile, they weren’t scoring enough to legitimize all those passing yards and were 45th in the nation in points per game.
Things will change with Leach at the helm, though. That’s going to be a pain for the UCLA defense to cover, too, because if there’s any weakness that any team in the Pac-12 can exploit, it’s the razor-thin secondary, which has its solid pieces, to be sure, but has absolutely no depth, to the point where Dalton Hilliard had to switch back to playing as a safety after being moved to running back. With Dietrich Riley gone for the season, Alex Mascarenas gone, and Andrew Abbott constantly dealing with knee issues, Leach should just throw all over the field.
Unless the UCLA defensive line is as good as it’s supposed to be. Unless Ellis McCarthy or Brandon Willis can take up all that space as anchors in a 3-4 defense at NT. Unless Datone Jones and Cassius Marsh can prove that they’re worthy of the the bump they received in the depth chart at the defensive end positions. And unless the UCLA linebacker corps is as deep as we believe it to be, with Patrick Larimore leading the rest of his core to being as fast as the 3-4 requires, while making sure all are the playmakers that a 3-4 needs.
Because if that happens, Wazzu’s offensive line won’t hold, time between snap and toss be damned (although, from what I hear, there isn’t much time that a QB takes in a Mike Leach offense to get rid of the ball).
Wazzu Defense vs. UCLA Offense
This is a cupcake defense that UCLA should man-handle in every way possible. Wazzu let up damn near 32 points a game and a laughable 402 yards of total offense per game. And even sweeter for UCLA is that Wazzu allowed 152 yards per game on the ground, which is ninth in the Pac-12. Wazzu’s pass defense is a little better — fifth in the conference and over 250 yards per game — but UCLA’s strongest position is in the backfield, with Johnathan Franklin, Steven Manfro, Damien Thigpen and the rest of those very capable running backs.
And Mike Leach doesn’t specialize in defense, so there’s no way to tell if this team won’t be one of the worst defensive squads in the nation like they were last season. There is no “Air Raid” solution to being 11th in the Pac-12 in sacks accumulated, and even less so for all those yards allowed.
So if UCLA wants to win, it needs to take advantage of Wazzu’s mediocre to disgustingly bad defense. Who knows what the UCLA passing game would be like, but a game against Wazzu would be OK to experiment against, if Mora so wanted.
Prediction: UCLA 41, Wazzu 37.
This game could be a toss-up. Wazzu has a lot of glaring issues, but it also now has Mike Leach and returns a very explosive passing offense.
But the results would most likely be dependent on how the season is going for both teams. If UCLA is taking things one game at a time, a win shouldn’t be too much to ask for here.