Two football teams on opposite trajectories will meet Saturday at Martin Stadium in their Pac-12 openers: Mike Leach’s undefeated Washington State Cougars and Chip Kelly’s winless UCLA Bruins.
On paper, it seems a mismatch. The Bruins are 3-13 since Kelly took over last season, and the calls in Southern California for his ouster are getting louder and louder. The Cougars are 14-2 in that span and are favored by 18 points Saturday.
But Leach said UCLA’s record is not indicative of its talent, and he said the Bruins (0-3) can’t be overlooked.
“I think they are an extremely talented team,” Leach said. “I think they are better than they’ve been playing because I know a great deal about their players — we recruited a lot of them. I don’t think they are playing together as well as they would like right now, but that can happen at any time and that can happen overnight. And as soon as they do, they’re an extremely dangerous team.”
“If they get on track, and they are playing as well as they can this week, we have to be ready.”
The Cougars didn’t seem ready early Friday in their biggest test of the season at Houston, trailing 14-7 at halftime. But led by quarterback Anthony Gordon, who threw for 440 yards and three touchdowns, WSU rallied for a 31-24 victory. Gordon was named Pac-12 offensive player of the week for the second time this season for the 3-0 Cougars.
“I think he needs to improve like everybody else we have,” Leach said. “The biggest thing is that he does a pretty good job of getting on track pretty quickly. He’s a pretty quick self-evaluator and he can get himself on track — because he certainly wasn’t perfect last game. But if something didn’t go right, he didn’t beat himself up and go into some of that mopey, pouty stuff that really drives me crazy when players do that. Being able to get back on track is an incredible strength and I think it rubs off on the other players.”
Despite the Cougars’ first-half woes, Leach said he was confident his team would respond well in the second half.
“There are two things: One, this isn’t really a business for realistic people to begin with, otherwise you don’t achieve at a high level,” he said. “The other thing is we’re a very dedicated group, we worked extremely hard and we were a team that things weren’t unfolding our way, but we were pushing hard and trying hard. We just weren’t a very synchronized crew. I did feel that if we did play together and were synchronized that we would be tough to stop and they would have a hard time moving the ball, and that was the case.”
With the non-conference slate finished, Leach gave his team credit for improving each week, saying, “That’s the biggest thing.”
“And if we can take another step this week, I think that would be huge,” he said.
The Pac-12 announced that WSU’s game at Utah on Sept. 28 will start at 7 p.m. (PDT) and will be televised by FS1.