The Rose Bowl is the site of a game this Saturday that will play a major role in the Pac-10 championship, as No. 7 UCLA meets eighth-ranked Washington.
The game carries added importance for the teams, who are each sporting 4-0 records. With a victory, they would be on an inside track to the Pac-10 title. What helps both UCLA and Washington in the Pac-10 title race is that neither will have to travel to the unfriendly confines of Autzen Stadium this season to face the conference favorite and No. 6-ranked Oregon.
With three teams in the top ten (as well as undefeated upstart Washington State turning heads), the Pac-10 appears to once again be among the nation’s elite conferences.
“We’ve got a lot of good football teams in this conference,” UCLA coach Bob Toledo said.
“Unfortunately a couple of years ago [in 1999], we had a down year, and I think people looked at the conference like we were down and out. That wasn’t the case. I believe the Pac-10 is back and is as strong as ever.”
While both teams have unbeaten records and appear to be favorites for the conference, UCLA has been one of the most impressive teams in the entire country this season. Not coincidentally, Las Vegas has installed the Bruins as 11.5-point favorites in Saturday’s contest.
The Bruins have been doing something not typical for a UCLA football team — winning with defense. Having already surpassed the team’s sack total for all of last season, UCLA has been playing smashmouth defense all season. Its first team defense has not allowed a touchdown since the Sept. 8 matchup with Kansas, a span that includes games against Ohio State and playing at Oregon State.
The Bruins are healthy on defense for the first time in a couple of years. Last season, UCLA started eight different players due to injuries. This year, all eight of those players are back, giving Toledo the kind of depth he has not been able to enjoy in recent years.
This is not the kind of defense Washington would like to be facing right now. Husky starting quarterback Cody Pickett was injured in the first half of last week’s game against USC, and is unlikely to play against UCLA. Backup Taylor Barton completed 11 of 19 passes for 197 yards in relief, but the Husky depth chart is very thin behind him. Not a good sign for a team that traditionally has relied on the option, going up against a very tough defense — something that Toledo has kept in mind.
“I don’t know what their game plan will be,” Toledo said. “But if I only had one quarterback and had to bring in a freshman behind him, I’d be concerned about how many hits he’d take.”
Washington, however, does have its weapons. True freshman Reggie Williams, considered by many to be the top prep receiver in the nation last year, has lived up to his hype, catching 17 passes for 375 yards and two touchdowns already this year.
“He’s blessed with unique physical abilities,” Washington coach Rick Neuheisel said. “What impresses me the most is that he’s got a real maturity about him. He’s not a finished product, but he’s certainly ahead of the curve.”
Toledo is equally impressed with Williams.
“He’s going to be one of the great receivers in this conference,” Toledo said. “Honestly, I hope he plays one season and decides to come out. There’s no question he’ll be playing on Sundays someday.”
UCLA’s chances are bolstered by the fact that the team has a very good offense to back up its defense. Quarterback Corey Paus has two big-time playmakers to get the ball downfield in Brian Poli-Dixon and Tab Perry. The duo has combined for 21 catches for 423 yards and four scores on the year.
But the real key to the Bruin offense is running back DeShaun Foster. The senior workhorse is coming off a stellar 147-yard, three-touchdown performance against Oregon State, and has already amassed 502 yards on the ground this season. Toledo is very impressed with his top rusher.
“I think he’s one of the best running backs in the country,” Toledo said. “Come next April [the NFL draft], I think people will see that he is the best in the country.”