UCLA's depleted secondary had to face the nation's top quarterback last week, but going up against Stanford and Andrew Luck might have actually helped the Bruins.
The numbers show that Luck still had his way with the Bruins as he completed 23 of 27 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns in Stanford's 45-19 victory, but playing Stanford actually gave the Bruins a break because the Cardinal runs offensive sets with only two receivers much of the time. That meant a UCLA secondary missing four key players wasn't nearly as taxed as it might have been.
"Fortunately, at least for that particular evening it wasn’t going to be a three and four wide night," coach Rick Neuheisel said of facing Stanford short-handed in the secondary. "It was more of a tight end featured substitution plan for Stanford."
That won't be the case this weekend against Washington State, which often runs four-receiver sets and has done so quite effectively with the No. 4-ranked passing offense in the nation at 379 yards per game. The Cougars have three receivers averaging more than 58 yards receiving per game, including Marquess Wilson who is fourth in the nation with 137.5. Four Washington State receivers have 12 or more receptions.
"They play a lot of 10 personnel, which is basically four wide receivers," Neuheisel said. "So we’ve got to be able to match up against that kind of offense."
It will be difficult, to say the least, if the Bruins go into the game with it's secondary in the same state it was in against Stanford.
Starting cornerback Sheldon Price, the team's top cover corner, and starting free safety Tony Dye both missed the Stanford game as did nickel back/safety Alex Mascarenas and backup strong safety Dalton Hilliard. Dye and Hilliard are listed as probable for the game against Washington State, but Price and Mascarenas are 50-50.
Those injuries left UCLA with a secondary featuring Andrew Abbott--mostly a nickel back in his career--making his first start at corner back, free safety Tevin McDonald making his second career start and strong safety Dietrich Riley making his third career start.
Cornerback Jamie Graham, recovering from August knee surgery, made his UCLA debut against Stanford as the secondary shortage pressed him into duty after only one week of practice and safety Stan McKay also got significant playing time for the first time in his career.
That lack of experience helps explain why Luck was able to complete such a high percentage of his passes. Luck, in his third year as a starter and the projected top pick in the 2012 NFL draft, simply picked apart an inexperienced unit. He was especially effective on third down, completed six of eight third-down passes.
"It had a big impact because we had a lot of guys with a lot of experience not in the game," said Riley, who was beaten for a 51-yard touchdown early in the third quarter against Stanford. "Tony, Dalton, Sheldon--those guys have played a lot. But next man in is what the challenge is. We need to step up when they are not in."
Lack of experience, however, might not be as much of an issue against Washington State as lack of bodies. The Cougars pass more than 40 times a game and that will certainly get the Bruins winded late in the game if they don't get breaks. Plus, UCLA won't be able to run different packages and looks if they only have a limited number of players.
But the healthy players say they can handle it. Abbott played admirably as a cover man and he and McDonald--the starter at free safety with Dye out the last two games--each had five tackles against Stanford. Graham should also be able to contribute more as he works back into game shape.
"Everybody in our secondary can play," Abbott said. "I know some of the guys who were out have more experience than others, but coach Neuheisel recruits players that are capable. It may have bothered us from a depth perspective, but everybody on our team can play."