I got in touch with Vince Grippi of the Spokane Spokesman-Review to exchange a little Q&A like Houston Chronicle writer Sam Khan Jr. and I did in Week 1 and Oregon State writer Paul Buker and I did in Week 4.
Here were my questions for him about Washington State, with his answers, and after the jump, his questions for me about UCLA, with my answers…
1) Washington State is being talked about as one of the hottest teams in the nation, yet their three wins have come against two FBS teams with an average ranking of 106.5 and a poor FCS team. Is this team for real or just beating bad teams?
Combination of both. The Cougars are improved, especially in their team speed and strength. The difference between this team and the WSU of three years ago is staggering. But the games with Idaho State and UNLV didn’t really offer any type of challenge or measuring stick – though UNLV did turn around the next week and handle Hawaii at home. But San Diego State offered both and WSU failed down the stretch. The Colorado win showed two things: The Cougars still have a long way to go and they learned a lesson in San Diego. The execution on the final four drives of the game – two offensive, two defensive – were near perfect and led to a comeback road victory, something new in Paul Wulff’s four years in Pullman.
2) I’m a little surprised Marshall Lobbestael is getting the nod over Jeff Tuel, just because of how well Tuel played last season. Is this a quarterback controversy, where at the quickest sign of trouble – like Lobbestael’s three-interception day against UCLA in 2009 – he’ll get pulled?
First off, as of Thursday morning, Tuel was cleared for non-contact work in practice, but had yet been given approval by the medical staff to play in a game. Until the staff signs off on full contact, Tuel is still a spectator. I really don’t expect that to happen before Saturday night’s game, though it could. Unlike most UC Irvine grads, I’m not a doctor. But there is no controversy. When Tuel is healthy, he’s the quarterback. Everyone, including Lobbestael is one board with that. Monday night, he said, “he’s the starting quarterback of this program. He’s won the job, he’s maintained it. I can’t wait for him to get healthy, like I said. He’s a great player. There’s a lot of things he has to offer this team that’s made him a quarterback at such a high level. He established himself last year and he knows, and everyone knows, he can continue to grow. I’m excited for him to come back. And I know the rest of the team is excited too because we love watching him and playing out there with him.”
3) Sticking with El Langostino, he’s completing better than 63 percent of his passes and has 13 touchdowns, so what’s going so right for him? Has Lobbestael always had this in him?
It’s a combination of his improvement – especially mentally – as a fifth-year senior and an offense with a lot more weapons than it had when he was playing before. The offensive line is better, the running backs are better and – and this is the key element – the Cougars have one of the deepest groups of wide receivers in the conference. Marquess Wilson (third in the nation with 137.5 yards per game) is a tremendous deep threat, Jared Karstetter is a big (6-foot-4, 210-pounds), sure-handed third-down threat and slot guys Bobby Ratliff and Isiah Barton work the middle of the field.
4) Washington State is playing well against the pass and getting to the quarterback well; are the Cougars playing more aggressively up front under new – and former UCLA – defensive line coach Todd Howard?
More aggressively, no. But more solid, yes. Howard has improved the group from top – junior defensive end Travis Long was an all-Pac-10 honorable mention selection his first two seasons – to bottom – 10 players have seen action as Howard is more willing to rotate players in to keep the starters fresh. With the group not getting blown off the line, as has happened the past few years, the linebackers are thriving. Senior weakside backer Alex Hoffman-Ellis, a Hamilton High grad, had 14 tackles, including two sacks, against Colorado and sophomores C.J. Mizell (middle) and Sekope Kaufusi (strong) have played better as well.
5) What’s the vibe like in Pullman? Has this start really energized the fan base, or was it too far gone?
The scene after the Colorado game was incredible. The Cougar fans had filled up a couple sections in Folsom Field down near the WSU locker room and after the late comeback, they flooded down toward the field, singing the fight song and high-fiving the players and coaches as the came up the ramp to the locker room. After not having much to cheer about the past three years, it was like a flood being released. In fact, the expectations may have been raised too high, for the reasons we’ve written about above. This Saturday could either raise those expectations even more or throw cold water on them.
Vince’s questions for me…
1. How have all the injuries in the secondary changed the way the Bruins play defensively?
Honestly, not all that much. UCLA has been playing passively in coverage all season long, allowing the opponent the underneath route almost at will. That takes away the primary advantage of both Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester: their size advantage over often smaller receivers. They are both just as fast as your average talented Pac-12 receiver, so they’ve almost been negated. Now with Price out and Andrew Abbott in for the second straight week, I don’t expect a change.
Likewise with the safeties, although Tony Dye could return this week, I haven’t seen a masssive shift in responsibility with him out.
2. With the departure of Norm Chow, is the Pistol offense running more efficiently?
At times, yes, but the run-at-all-costs attitude is still perplexing to me. UCLA fancies itself a running team on par with the best in the country, but the stats don’t lie. They’re a good running team, not a great one. A great one scores from inside the 5-yard line in four plays against Stanford. A good one gets stopped at the one 1-yard line against the best run defense in the country.
So, while the playcalling has opened up ever-so-slightly, I wouldn’t say they’re miles ahead of where they were last year.
3. So how has a school of UCLA’s stature ended up with a former soccer manager doing the place kicking?
That’s just astounding to me as well. UCLA got Kai Forbath in 2006 and then waited all the way until 2010 to get his replacement, when it should really be a two-year cycle. There wasn’t a great class out west in 2008 at the position, but at no point did they appear to be grooming punter Jeff Locke for the job. Then, to not go after a junior college kicker compounds the issue.
4. After all the angst of the past few years, has Rick Neuheisel finally settled on Richard Brehaut as his quarterback?
I think settled is just about the right word in his mind. After Kevin Prince’s three-interception quarter against Texas, the public outcry over sticking with him would’ve been too much for Neuheisel to handle. Imagine pitchforks and a fiery mob. So he turns the keys over to Richard Brehaut, but he padlocks the garage door.
Brehaut comes in for Prince in Week 1 and nearly engineers a big comeback, falling short because of the kicking woes despite a 264-yard, two-touchdown performance, with 87 rushing yards and a score. The next week against an awful San Jose State team, he throws just 23 passes, completing 12 for 145 yards and a score. Then Prince gets the call against Texas, loses control and Brehaut comes in to attempt 19 throws. The following week against an overmatched Oregon State secondary, Brehaut gets 11 attempts, completing seven for 146 yards and a score, a QB rating of 205.1. The only reason Brehaut threw 33 times against Stanford is because UCLA was playing catchup almost the whole game.
So, yes, “settled on” appears to be the correct terminology.
5. If the Cougars find a way to win Saturday, is Neuheisel going to be shown the door?
I would be beyond shocked if UCLA made any decisions in-season, beyond an epic collapse. UCLA just isn’t the kind of school that does that. If the wheels fall off completely, who knows, but that shouldn’t happen with the talent level on the team.