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Rick Neuheisel focuses on present against Washington State

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A year ago when these schools played football, UCLA and Washington State were trying to stay out of the conference cellar. On Saturday, the winner will be on a path toward respectability. UCLA needs a win to improve its chances of qualifying for a bowl game. Washington State hasn’t won four games in a season since 2007. Staff writer Chris Foster examines the game’s issues and matchups:

Pick Rick?

UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel is 8-0 as a coach against Washington State. His teams at three schools — Colorado, Washington and UCLA — have beaten the Cougars.

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He beat them when they were good. He beat them when they were bad.

And that track record makes him nervous.

“All those games are in the past,” Neuheisel said. “This is all about this game and this particular UCLA team against their particular Washington State team.”

Washington State is 3-1, though the Cougars remain an enigma. They are ranked fourth nationally in passing offense (379 yards per game), tied for ninth in total offense (518.5) and 10th in scoring (44.5 points per game). Yet San Diego State, the only quality team they have played, is their one loss.

In the past, it hasn’t mattered how good the Cougars have been where Neuheisel is concerned. At Washington, Neuheisel twice beat Washington State teams that won 10 games, in 2001 and 2002.

“I don’t have any answer for it other than we’ve been in some great games,” Neuheisel said.

Come to pass

There is no mystery what Washington State will throw at UCLA today — the football.

Marshall Lobbestael stepped for injured Jeff Tuel at quarterback in the season opener, and the Cougars’ spread offense didn’t miss a beat. Lobbestael has passed for 1,335 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The Cougars have three receivers with at least 19 receptions, and Marquess Wilson is the most dangerous. He has 21 receptions — five for touchdowns — and averages 26.2 yards per catch.

Joe Tresey, UCLA’s defensive coordinator, said the spread offense makes “the match-up situations harder. You have to pick and choose if you want to double somebody or anything you want to do coverage-wise.”

UCLA’s pass defense has been shaky, and Tresey is short on players. Starting cornerback Sheldon Price and reserve safety Alex Mascarenas are out with injuries. Safety Tony Dye and linebacker Glenn Love, both starters, are listed as questionable because of injuries.

Memory lane

UCLA quarterback Richard Brehaut made his first college start against Washington State, helping the Bruins to a 42-28 victory last season.

“It will always be special,” Brehaut said. “We got that win, so maybe it gives me a little more confidence. But it is a different year.”

Last year, Brehaut passed for 128 yards working a safe-and-sane game plan. His role might expand Saturday.

Running it up

What worked for UCLA last year was pretty straightforward. As in, hand the ball to Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman and let them run straight forward. The Bruins had 437 yards rushing, 216 by Franklin and 185 by Coleman.

Look for more of the same. The Bruins are 29th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 199.4 yards per game. The Cougars gave up 227 yards rushing against San Diego State and 161 to Colorado in their last two games.

Casting call

Could the football gods possibly pass on this opportunity?

Tyler Gonzalez will handle field goals and extra points for UCLA. He was the team manager for UCLA’s soccer team four weeks ago, before he was drawn to the football team after injuries to kickers Kip Smith and Joe Roberts.

That just seems like too good of a story line to ignore.

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes


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