PULLMAN – As cold-weather games go, Saturday night will be nothing for Washington State linebackers coach Jeff Choate.
The St. Maries, Idaho, native grew up in the region. And he played college football at Western Montana, where temperatures near or below the zero-degree mark for November games weren’t all that unusual.
So Choate laughs as he describes his worst such encounter, one that involved a road grader clearing the field before orange paint lines were drawn for yardage markers.
“If you’ve ever seen those graders, the plow is tilted,” Choate said. “So the whole field was tilted.”
That won’t be necessary this weekend. But WSU (2-7, 0-6 Pac-12) at least hopes that’s what it might feel like for UCLA tonight, when the Pac-12 South-leading Bruins bring their 7-2 record (4-2 in conference) into Martin Stadium for a 7:30 game.
According to Weather.com, temperatures are forecast in the 20s with a possibility of morning show showers, although the snow should taper off by the time the game starts.
Still, it’s an environment in which the Cougars will at least be slightly more accustomed. WSU’s Thursday practice was held in 30-degree temperatures with light snowfall becoming heavier the last hour or so, leaving Martin Stadium coated in a thin layer.
Los Angeles recorded a high of 64 degrees yesterday, for what it’s worth.
“I think the one advantage that you have is that you do get the opportunity to practice in these elements,” Choate said. “And it’s very difficult to simulate snow and cold weather in Southern California.”
Not that Bruins coach Jim Mora would even try. According to a story this week in the Orange County Register, Mora has instructed his players not to even mention the word “cold,” much the way he refused to acknowledge the altitude in Colorado as a potential factor when UCLA played there earlier this season.
Mora hasn’t been to Pullman since the Apple Cup in 1982, he says, when he was a backup defensive back for Washington.
The Cougars won that game after Huskies kicker Chuck Nelson famously missed a potential go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter. Mora hasn’t forgotten what happened next.
“They tore down the goalposts and they threw it in the river,” Mora recalled this week with a chuckle.
“I haven’t been back to Pullman since.”
A WSU win today might warrant a similar reaction. Mike Leach’s first season as coach has been a clunker, with the Cougars losing their last six games amid frustration and turmoil. Star receiver Marquess Wilson won’t play this week after Leach suspended him for walking out of a team workout.
And the Cougars lost any hope of playing in a bowl game after last week’s 49-6 lambasting at Utah.
Still, they feel there is plenty left to prove.
“There’s a lot of flack coming in from the outside about this program, the coaching staff and the players,” senior quarterback Jeff Tuel said. “It would just mean that you’re not going to break us as players, and we’re going to keep moving on and we’re going to keep playing ball.”
They’ll do it against a UCLA team with one of the nation’s top running backs, Johnathan Franklin, and an offense ranked No. 11 in the nation at nearly 515 yards per game.
WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske described the Bruins’ offense as “very balanced, throwing the ball, running the ball and explosive on the perimeter. We’ve got our hands full this weekend but kids are excited, and (it’s) a tremendous challenge.”
Choate compared UCLA’s offense to Oregon in terms of the way the Bruins use space. Freshman quarterback Brett Hundley is mobile, though doesn’t run as often as he throws.
The latter could be more difficult for each team, given the potential weather conditions. Then again, WSU fans still remember Connor Halliday’s record-setting performance in freezing temperatures last season against Arizona State.
“It’s about your focus,” Choate said. “The ball’s not any different shape. Your route’s not run any deeper or shorter. If your focus is there you can usually execute, and the team that generally has the best focus is going to execute the best and has the best opportunity to win.”
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