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UCLA's next foe, Washington State, isn't just a passing team these days

UCLA's next foe, Washington State, isn't just a passing team these days
Washington State's River Cracraft and Gabe Marks celebrate after Cracraft caught a touchdown pass against Stanford last weekend. (Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

Washington State football games no longer have the atmosphere of a junior college softball game, as Cougars Coach Mike Leach so colorfully put it after season-opening losses to Eastern Washington and Boise State.

The Cougars just walloped Stanford by 26 points to notch their first victory over a top-15 team since 2003. Their game against UCLA on Saturday night in Pullman will be televised by ESPN.

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Not too many JC softball games find their way onto national television.

Washington State (3-2 overall, 2-0 in Pac-12 Conference play) has become worthy of the attention after finding some defense and a running game to go with its prolific passing attack.

"It's really scary to play football like that, actually, especially as a receiver," Cougars receiver Gabe Marks said this week of the team's old one-dimensional style. "I've been on some teams where they know that the defense isn't going to stop them, they know that we're not going to run the ball, so they just drop like 10 guys [into pass coverage] and I'm like 160 pounds and I'm running dig and post routes into defensive ends. It wasn't cool.

"The addition of the run game and the defense is very much welcome to me."

Washington State rushed for more than 200 yards in victories over Idaho and Oregon and its defense held Stanford without an offensive touchdown until the final play of the Cougars' 42-16 triumph.

The team's turnaround coincided with Leach's rant that followed its poor start.

"He yelled at us for like a week," Marks said of his coach. "That was pyschologically enough to get you going. It's like, all right, I want him to stop yelling so I'm going to play."

Marks has a team-leading 34 catches for 301 yards and six touchdowns this season and needs 34 more catches to break the Pac-12 career record of 294 held by Colorado's Nelson Spruce.

UCLA's defensive backs remain painfully familiar with Marks' handiwork after he hauled in a 21-yard touchdown pass with three seconds left last season to lift the Cougars to a 31-27 victory over the Bruins at the Rose Bowl.

"That has definitely stuck in my mind," UCLA safety Adarius Pickett said. "I mean, getting ready for this game, it's like we owe them one. They got one at the end of the game, and that was on us."

Catch as catch can

Pickett has some redeeming to do on another front. He fumbled one punt that he ended up recovering and bobbled another punt while going out of bounds last week against Arizona State.

Pickett said his struggles were largely because of the unusual ball movement generated by the Sun Devils' left-footed punter.

"The ball would kind of tail at the end," Pickett said. "It was kind of like I thought I was under the ball but I really wasn't. I still have to catch the ball, though. No more excuses."

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It was unclear whether Pickett would return punts against the Cougars or whether the responsibility would go back to Ishmael Adams, who practiced this week after suffering a partially separated shoulder against Arizona on Oct. 1.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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