Saturday previews: Cougs should handle Stanford, UW not ready for primetime

SAN FRANCISCO -- Well, I'm on the ground here in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, hanging out in the humble abode of my brother and his wife. I'll be heading off to Palo Alto for the WSU-Stanford game in the morning, and should have a first-hand account of the game to give you tomorrow night. In the meantime, here are my takes on the two teams that matter most to you:

Washington State (2-1) at Stanford (0-3)

Line: Cougars by 10.

How we got here: The Cougs roll into Palo Alto, Calif., with the record most everyone thought they’d have. Lackluster performance against Baylor in Seattle last weekend aside, the season is shaping up pretty much according to script, with a whipping of Idaho sandwiched between the Bears and a predictable loss at No. 2 Auburn. The offense still has yet to really get synced up, not uncommon for this time of year. But WSU fans seem to be even more impatient than usual as they call for junior starting quarterback Alex Brink to be replaced by sophomore gunslinger Gary Rogers, despite decent stats from Brink and a sharp fourth quarter performance that led to the game-winning field goal against Baylor. The defense has been good, holding its own against the Tigers for a half before the heat and humidity wore the unit out. Since then, however, the Cougars have allowed just two touchdowns, using a mix of 4-3 and 3-4 fronts to suit offensive matchups.

Meanwhile, Stanford comes in beat up and beaten down. The Cardinal’s 0-3 record includes a pair of embarrassing losses, one to San Jose State and one to Navy in the debut of their brand spanking new stadium. (Their first loss came on the road at Oregon. No allegations that the officials had anything to do with the 48-10 drubbing.) The defense has been putrid, giving up an average of 343 yards on their ground in their three games, easily worst in the Pac-10. On the other side of the ball, the Cardinal practically are down to walk-ons at wide receiver after being hit with myriad injuries, and also will be without their starting fullback.

Key matchup: Stanford has beaten WSU the last two years in Pullman, and the main reason has been the performance of quarterback Trent Edwards. While he’s been good with his arm, he’s been even better with his feet. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Edwards isn’t especially fast; it’s just that he did an exceptional job taking advantage of an overaggressive defensive front for the Cougars last year to rush for 92 yards on 12 carries, many of those right up the middle and for back-breaking third down conversions. It will be interesting to see if the Cougars go with the 3-4 front they used almost exclusively against Baylor; 6-foot-8, 278-pound Ropati Pitoitua was a one-man wrecking crew at nose tackle, consistently blowing up the pocket by forcing his way through double teams. If WSU can keep Edwards in the pocket and force him to throw to a bunch of young and inexperienced wide receivers who will have trouble getting open, it should be a good day for the Cougs.

Prediction: The fact that WSU is a 10-point favorite on the road says less about how good the Cougs are and more about how terrible everyone thinks Stanford is. Then again, everyone thought Stanford was pretty terrible last year when they lost to I-AA UC Davis before the matchup. The Cougs coasted into that game expecting to walk all over the Cardinal and got shocked. Here’s betting they don’t let that happen again. WSU 24, Stanford 10.

UCLA (2-0) at Washington (2-1)

Line: UCLA by 3.

How we got here: Washington is riding high after equaling its win total from a year ago thanks to a big special teams play last Saturday against Fresno State. The defensive front seven has looked pretty good, and the team has been able to make just enough plays to win a couple of games that they probably would have lost in the last couple of years. It's got the Huskies dreaming for six -- the six wins they'd need to squeeze into a bowl game.

UCLA travels away from the Rose Bowl for the first time this season, albeit after a week off. The Bruins have looked solid if unspectacular in their first two games, picking up wins against Utah and Rice in games that never were in doubt. Having a sophomore at quarterback isn't such a bad thing when he's 23, and UCLA has a good one in Ben Olson. Although he's only thrown for an average of 221 yards, he's rated No. 1 in the Pac-10 in quarterback efficiency (172.4). He seems to be making the Bruins forget about all those NFL draft picks from a year ago -- for now.

Key matchup: Olson's ability to throw against Washington's secondary -- the weak links of weak links the last few years -- likely will be the deciding factor in the game. The Huskies have yet to face a team that throws the ball particularly well, so this will be the first true test of that revamped secondary. That said, Oklahoma was able to move the ball through the air from time to time, something they didn't do much of before or since. Washington will need to stop Olson if it wants to have any chance to win.

Prediction: Olson's arm will be too much for a Husky defensive secondary that still has major flaws. However, I think Washington has made big strides, and this Saturday they'll keep it close before folding late. UCLA 28, UW 24.

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