UCLA realizes Washington State is for real
Although UCLA has struggled for a large portion of the past three seasons, the Bruins could always take comfort in knowing they weren't Washington State.
The Cougars undeniably were the worst team in the conference for the past three years, getting pushed around almost every Saturday while winning exactly five games.
Now that Washington State has started to push back this season, the still-struggling Bruins have been paying wary attention.
''If you go in there thinking it's the Washington State from previous years, you're not going to do well,'' UCLA linebacker Sean Westgate said. ''I'm sure the first three teams that they beat were thinking, 'What's going on?' while they just took it to them.''
Washington State (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) returns to the Rose Bowl on Saturday night looking to extend its remarkable start to the season. The Cougars could match their conference win total from the previous three seasons under coach Paul Wulff with their first win in Pasadena since 2006.
Both coaches would prefer measure their programs against bigger sticks, but the Bruins (2-3, 1-1) have been only slightly better than the woebegone Cougars over the past three years.
''They deserve to feel the way they do,'' UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. ''They've played hard, played well, and put up all kinds of numbers. They're a real operation that deserves to be taken seriously. We have a legitimate and real respect for them.''
Neuheisel hasn't finished above eighth place in the conference standings since returning to his alma mater, and not much in the Bruins' first five games this season has suggested they're ready to take a quantum leap forward.
But Neuheisel remains hopeful, and his players called a meeting earlier this week to reinforce the urgency to get rolling as they reach the halfway point of what could be a make-or-break season in the coach's tenure.
''We want to turn this around,'' said UCLA tailback Johnathan Franklin, who rushed for a career-high 216 yards in last season's win over Washington State. ''We're tired of losing. We've been 4-8 too long. We want to take this program to the top, and we have to do it by winning. We can't be satisfied with anything right now.''
The Bruins admire the Cougars' passing offense orchestrated by Marshall Lobbestael, the senior backup who stepped in for Jeff Tuel in the season opener after Tuel broke his collarbone. Lobbestael has passed for 379 yards per game - more than double the average of UCLA starter Richard Brehaut.
''A little bit has surprised us, because (Lobbestael) hadn't had an opportunity to play in a game for about two years,'' Wulff said. ''You don't know how he's going to respond, but the operation of our offense has grown a lot, and Marshall is obviously a big part of that.''
Although Tuel has returned to practice, UCLA realizes either quarterback poses a significant threat to a defense that yielded 142 points in its three losses this season. Although the Bruins are still running the ball well with Franklin and Derrick Coleman, they haven't scored more than 27 points since the season opener last month.
The UCLA secondary is appropriately wary of Washington State's passing game with Lobbestael throwing to Marquess Wilson, who has 550 yards receiving and five touchdowns, and steady Jared Karstetter, who leads with 22 catches.
''They haven't done this amount of passing in years,'' said UCLA safety Tony Dye, who expects to return after missing two games with injuries. ''Maybe more than any team except Houston. They've never done anything like this.''
The Bruins will no longer discount the Cougars in the way they did last season, when Washington State kept the matchup even heading into the fourth quarter before Brehaut and Coleman scored late touchdowns.
A win would send the Bruins into their bye with reason for optimism, while a loss to the formerly woebegone Cougars could undo much of the progress Neuheisel believes he's making this season.
''I think we might have even overlooked them last year,'' Westgate said. ''It really hurt us in the first half. They were winning, and we hadn't stopped them yet. Once we figured out that they're here, they're legit, we realized we can't underestimate them, which we're not going to do this year. Numbers don't lie.''