Welcome back to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the 2019 UCLA Bruins football season! Each week, we will be taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and make a bold prediction regarding the outcome.
This week, we take a look at UCLA’s 4th opponent: the Washington State Cougars.
Any discussion of Washington State in 2018 has to begin with the biggest moment in Washington State history.
Yes, that’s right. After years and years of flag waving, the Cougars finally got to host a College Gameday and they did not disappoint, showing off their prodigious ability to have a party to rival anyone in the nation. This more than anything else was the moment of the year in the Pac-12 from a football perspective.
It certainly helped that the Cougars were an excellent team in 2018, winning eleven games for the first time ever. Gardner Minshew and his mustache became an dark horse Heisman candidate and the Cougars were playing for an outside shot at the College Football Playoff until they laid a collective egg in the Apple Cup. Still, it’s hard to call last year anything but than a resounding success.
Minshew is gone now and replacing him is new transfer quarterback Gage Gubrud from Eastern Washington. Gubrud has experience playing against Pac-12 teams as he led his Eastern Washington team to an upset of Washington State in 2016. Gubrud is a capable quarterback and, while it may be presumptuous to assume he’ll match Minshew’s production, Washington State should remain in capable hands.
It should help that the rest of the Cougars offense remains loaded. Jamire Calvin, Davontavean Martin, and Dezmon Patmon all return to lead a stacked receiving corps. Running back James Williams is gone, replaced by the equally proficient Max Borghi; both backs saw at least 66 targets last year, which bodes well for the continuity at the position. While Andre Dillard is gone, the rest of last year’s offensive line is back.
Honestly, there isn’t much to talk about here. There’s continuity at almost every position and coaching staff and a capable replacement at the quarterback position. Plus, this is a Mike Leach team, meaning the offense should be fine.
Last year was a significant step back for the Cougars defense. They were still excellent at times. The Cougars held six opponents to 20 points or less last year, but there were definitely more breakdowns than there were in 2017. The good news was that the offense was usually able to cover for the defense, except in the two instances where the Cougars faced a team with a clear talent advantage (Southern Cal and Washington).
The big problem for the Cougars was the run defense; it was bad. The run defense was an awful 105th in run defense S&P+ and, if you had a good rushing attack, you could move the ball and keep the Cougar offense off the field. That run defense should improve only marginally this year, as the Cougars lost their top two defensive tackles from last year’s team and no one on the defensive line tops 290 pounds.
The pass defense was the strength of the Washington State defense last year and it will continue to be that way in 2019. Skylar Thomas and Jalen Thompson are one of the best safety pairs in the conference and returning corner Marcus Strong was no slouch either. But this unit did see a large amount of attrition in the offseason and the lack of depth could signal a step back in 2019.
I went into this preview wanting to talk myself into picking UCLA to win. Then, I got to the offensive section and, while there is a QB change, Washington State still has a ton of weapons to attack opposing defenses that should make UCLA’s thin defense have nightmares. But, at the same time, the Cougars’ weaknesses on defense line up perfectly with what UCLA has shown it can be excellent at last year, which is running the ball. So this game could be a lot closer than expected.
I’m actually going to go out on a limb here early and say that this is the game UCLA comes out for early and announces that they will be improved in 2019. I reserve the right to completely change this opinion after the season begins.
UCLA wins, 38-35.