With just one more home game at the Rose Bowl, UCLA remains on track for the Pac-12 South title.
However, Washington State looks like a different squad than the one that dropped a season opener to FCS opponent Portland State, and still sits in second place in its division after a two-point loss to No. 7 Stanford.
After three consecutive wins, the No. 18 Bruins (7-2, 4-2) can clinch a spot in the Pac-12 Championship by winning three more. Keeping that path clear will require navigating past a resurgent Cougars squad eager to pull an upset at 7:45 p.m. tonight.
When UCLA has the ball
It might be time for Paul Perkins to grab everyone’s attention again.
The redshirt junior has run for only two touchdowns since injuring his knee more than three weeks ago, but was healthy enough to carry the ball 23 times last Saturday — the tailback’s heaviest workload since September. WSU has allowed 18 rushing scores and 5.1 yards per carry, both of which stand as bottom-three marks in the Pac-12.
But the Cougars (6-3, 4-2) could open the game by stacking the box, as many other teams have done in an effort to neutralize Perkins. If that happens, UCLA will need some creative playcalling early and use Josh Rosen to stretch open the field.
Rosen has exceeded expectations after becoming the program’s first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener. He’s gone three consecutive games without an interception, throwing 131 passes along the way. That’s a longer streak than any that Brett Hundley sustained in three years as a starter, although the eventual fifth-round pick never played behind as capable an offensive line.
The veteran group up front has recently welcomed redshirt freshman Kolton Miller into the fold as the starting right tackle, and still looks like one of the best units in the conference. Against WSU, it will contend with a defensive line that has generated the bulk of the team’s 23 sacks.
When Washington State has the ball
The Cougars have a prolific offense, one that throws the ball on more than 70 percent of its offensive plays.
That could bode well for a UCLA defense that has been far more vulnerable on the ground this season. While the numbers may be skewed by opponents more often electing to run against the Bruins, their 5.5 yards allowed per attempt ranks top-five nationally — particularly impressive given that three of their past opponents average at least 7.8.
One key has been a secondary playing above expectations after losing cornerback Fabian Moreau. After losing his first two seasons to shoulder surgeries, redshirt sophomore Johnny Johnson has been effective in his three starts, nabbing his first career interception last Saturday at Oregon State. Defensive backs have accounted for seven of UCLA’s 11 picks, while giving up only 12 touchdown passes.
Will they be able to continue that trend against Luke Falk and his deep crew of receivers? WSU’s sophomore star is on pace to break Pac-12 single-season records for passing yards (4,597) and touchdowns (42), and has completed at least 65 percent of his passes against all but one conference opponent this fall.
And while UCLA’s defensive backs have performed well as of late, they haven’t been stretched by a team with three Biletnikoff watch-listed receivers. Gabe Marks and Dom Williams have combined for 1,644 yards and 19 touchdowns, while River Cracraft adds 552 and four as the team’s possession target.
To keep the passing game in check, UCLA will need to make Falk uncomfortable in the pocket. The Bruins have notched nine sacks in their past three games, and that’s happened without any contributions from outside linebacker Deon Hollins, who led the team with nine last season. The junior has been limited by a knee injury in recent weeks, but said he’s fully healthy again.
Edge: Washington State
On special teams
Ka’imi Fairbairn is only one point away from tying John Lee’s UCLA and Pac-12 scoring record of 390, and will almost certainly take sole possession of first place. It’ll be a nice moment for a senior that has had a mercurial career as a Bruin, especially in his last game at the Rose Bowl.
Washington State’s Erik Powell has been a bit inconsistent, going 14 of 18 on the season. That includes a 22-yard miss against Portland State in a season-opening loss, as well as a 43-yard miss that could have earned the Cougars a win over Stanford. However, he also kept his team in the game with five straight against the Cardinal, including makes from 46 and 48 yards.
UCLA punter Matt Mengel has done better in his last two games, and WSU freshman Zach Charme has been fairly pedestrian, averaging 39.8 yards per punt.
The big advantage for the Bruins might be the Cougars’ weakness in defending punt returns. While they’ve been capable in covering kickoffs, they’re allowing a conference-worst 16.7 yards per return, including two for touchdowns.
Prediction: UCLA 38, Washington State 24. The Cougars have been arguably the biggest surprise in the conference, but the Bruins’ biggest weakness has been defending the run.