To call it a rivalry would be misleading, considering UCLA holds a 33-11-1 lead in its football series against Washington State University.
It would be equally misleading, however, to ignore recent history: Each team has won four of the last eight in the series.
Rivalry or not, today’s season opener between the Bruins and Cougars, complete with Keith Jackson and a regional ABC television audience, figures to be competitive.
While each team finished a disappointing 5-6 last season, each also has enough talent to warrant relatively high expectations in 1997. But only one figures to escape Martin Stadium today with those expectations realistically intact.
For WSU, the opener is the first of two consecutive Pacific-10 Conference games. After a bye next week, the Cougars play at Southern California, where they haven’t won since 1957.
“It’s really, really important for us if we win those games,” WSU coach Mike Price said. “If we lose, it’s just a temporary setback.”
Not so fast, coach.
Of all the ways to get to a bowl, as WSU aspires to do, oh-and-two should be highly discouraged.
Consider the history: WSU teams have started 0-2 no fewer than 16 times in 101 seasons, and not one rebounded to post a winning record.
For UCLA, today’s game is especially important because of the Bruins’ next two opponents, No. 5 Tennessee and No. 12 Texas.
Of all the ways to get to a bowl, as UCLA also aspires to do, oh-and-three should be avoided with even more caution, especially for a second-year coach coming off a 5-6 season.
“This is a big game which will have implications for both teams - particularly us,” Bruins coach Bob Toledo said. “You play a non-league schedule with three opponents that played in bowl games last year (Houston is the third), and it’s important to win as many as you can, particularly early.”
A UCLA victory today would afford the Bruins precious breathing room.
Should they then lose to the Vols and Horns, they could virtually secure one of the Pac-10’s four bowl bids by winning only five of their final eight games. Such a finish would guarantee a conference record no worse than 5-3.
UCLA quarterback Cade McNown was the Pac-10’s lowest-rated passer last season, but he should fare much better now that he is more familiar with Toledo’s offense.
“He has an air of confidence about him he’s comfortable with what we’re doing,” Toledo said.
UCLA running back Skip Hicks is also comfortable. He rushed for 1,034 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, and this year’s goal of 1,500 seems realistic.
Hicks caught 21 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns last season, including two TD receptions in the Bruins’ 38-14 victory over WSU in Pasadena.
“I like this offense better because it gets me more passes, which put me one-on-one with linebackers,” said Hicks.
UCLA plans to compensate for its smallish defensive front by rotating its entire defensive line every three plays or so.
Darren Cline, Damon Smith and Weldon Forde will be backed up by Pete Holland, Micah Webb and Jayson Brown.
“The problem isn’t me knowing what they’re doing or Ryan (Leaf) knowing what they’re doing. It’s blocking them. Executing our offense is what we’re concerned with.”- Price, addressing WSU’s familiarity with UCLA defensive coordinator Rocky Long, who ran a similar defensive scheme at Oregon State.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Cougars vs. UCLA Color photo
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