Everyone involved agrees. It’s time for Washington State’s offense to step up and perform like the confident, improved unit it has proclaimed to be all fall.
The Cougars took steps in that direction two weeks ago, rolling up 504 yards and 26 first downs in a 38-21 win over Division I-AA Montana.
“But that was a team we should have done that against,” admitted junior quarterback Chad Davis, who threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns against the Grizzlies.
Next up is 16th-ranked UCLA (0-1 in the Pacific-10 Conference and 2-1 overall), which invades Martin Stadium today to help the Cougars (1-1) kick off their league schedule.
WSU shut out the Bruins 21-0 last fall in the Rose Bowl, but this is a different Cougars defense and a better Bruins offense.
A near-sellout crowd is expected and it appears WSU’s young defense might need some help in this one.
UCLA has junior quarterback Ryan Fien back after a week’s absence because of a shoulder injury and concussion. And both Bruins tailbacks, Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Skip Hicks, are healthy.
Throw in a veteran offensive line, anchored by 6-foot-8, 303-pound tackle Jonathan Ogden and wide receiver Kevin Jordan, both preseason All-Americans, and it’s obvious coach Terry Donahue is bringing the whole offensive package to the table.
Abdul-Jabbar leads the Pac-10 in rushing with an average of 151.3 yards per game and the Bruins rank first in the league in rushing offense and fifth in scoring offense.
WSU coach Mike Price said he thinks an extra year of experience for many of UCLA’s starters is the key to their increase in offensive production.
And he admits it will take a strong performance from his own offense to offset what the Bruins are capable of doing against his young defense.
Davis, who will make his 15th consecutive start at quarterback, said UCLA’s new 4-3 defensive alignment, which features smallish linebackers who are quick and athletic, could present some problems.
But he seems confident the Cougars can make some things happen.
“I think we can put points up against UCLA,” Davis said. ” We feel like we can run the football, and if our running game goes well, we feel like we can play-action them because of the way they flow to the football.”
WSU’s offense, which has yet to “open it up,” as promised, has been plagued by poor field position and penalties that have left it facing too many long-yardage situations. Cutting back on the mental mistakes is a must against UCLA, according to senior running back Derek Sparks.
“All the penalties and stuff, we just can’t have those and expect to win,” he said. “We’re in league now, the Pac-10, and it won’t happen for you if you continue to make mistakes and shoot yourself in the foot.”
Price has worked all week on using longer snap counts in hopes of keeping his offensive linemen from jumping offsides. But Sparks said there is more to curing the penalty curse than that.
“The offense we have is very difficult to learn,” he said. “There’s a lot of motion and shifting and stuff, and that may be the reason for some of the offsides and stuff.”
Players to watch
Donahue is elated to have Fien back at quarterback, and said he plans to take advantage of the junior’s experience by presenting WSU’s defense with more looks than Oregon got from true freshman Cade McKnown last weekend.
“However, I will say that the strength of our team is not the quarterback position right now,” Donahue added. “The strength of our team is the tailback position.”
Which means the Cougars better keep close tabs on Abdul-Jabbar and Hicks, who rambled 52 yards for a touchdown against Oregon on his first carry after coming back from preseason knee surgery.
UCLA has altered its defensive scheme, going with speed over size in much the same manner as WSU.
As a result, the Bruins’ front seven will give up a bunch of bulk in the trenches, opening speculation that they might get overpowered by WSU’s huge offensive line especially with All-American middle linebacker Donnie Edwards sidelined for a month with a compression fracture of the vertebrae.
“It means a lot not having Donnie in there,” admitted Abdul McCullough, the Bruins’ 202-pound outside linebacker, who was moved up from a safety position. “He was our leader; he was the guy - someone who made big plays.”
Along with Edwards, the Bruins will be without starting defensive end Danjuan Magee (knee).
WSU, following its bye week, has junior linebacker Johnny Nansen (knee) back following arthroscopic knee surgery and should be as healthy as it has been all fall.
Price had pleaded all week for WSU’s crowd to bring its best voice to the game. But McCullough, UCLA’s starting outside linebacker, isn’t sure Price’s plea is needed.
“Their fans are the worst,” said McCullough, who played in Martin Stadium two years ago as a freshman when the Bruins blasted the Cougars 40-27. “They’re right on top of you and they’re always yelling stuff. I guess they read the media guides or whatever, too, because they know your name and they know everything about you.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Courgars vs. UCLA
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