September 13, 2010

Weekend Reflections: UCLA-Stanford (2010)

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By The Daily Axe Staff
Neuheisel is wishing he had another Troy Aikman in Pasadena. (Image by avinashkunnath via Flickr)

35-0 isn’t much of a game. In Stanford’s first win in Pasadena since 1996, Stanford dominated UCLA in every facet of the matchup, and Card fans should be excited going into this week’s game against Wake Forest back on the Farm. Most importantly, Stanford’s defense looked good against the Bruins. That’s right: the Stanford defense. The D held UCLA to 233 total yards, forced 4 turnovers, and kept starting quarterback Kevin Prince to just 39 passing yards. The UCLA passing attack was so bad that back-up QB Richard Brehaut–who came in for Prince in the 4th quarter–threw for more yards than the starter did. (Brehaut went 5-9 for 42 yards and 1 interception. UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel has opened the quarterback battle up once again in hopes that the Bruins can start a competent signal-caller and perhaps score.) At one point, Stanford cornerback Michael Thomas literally ripped the ball out of Prince’s hands and returned the fumble for a touchdown. Needless to say, UCLA looked hapless on the offensive end.

Even with the shutout against a conference opponent on the road, we still don’t know how good the Stanford defense really is. The stats from Pasadena are impressive, but UCLA’s offense barely looked like that of a D-II school, let alone an upper-echelon PAC-10 team.

Surprisingly, the offense looked like the inferior side of the ball for the Cardinal. 362 yards, 0 turnovers, and nearly 37 minutes of possession aren’t shabby, but Andrew Luck’s arm had a down night. The quarterback went 11-24 for 151 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. Both touchdown passes went to wide-open receivers, and the Card’s opening series was a total disaster (3 pass plays, 3 incompletions). Nevertheless, great quarterbacks win when they play below their potential, and Luck did just that. In the most effective running game of his career, Luck ran for 63 yards, all of which came on plays when he had no open receivers and had to evacuate the collapsing pocket. Though no one expects Luck to be the second coming of (the collegiate, non-dog-fighting version of) Michael Vick, great things happen when the Texan tucks the ball and scrambles 7-9 times per game. Before Saturday, Luck’s best rushing performance (7 carries for 61 yards and a touchdown) came at USC, when the Cardinal won 55-21. Against Washington last September, Luck picked up 59 yards and a score in a 34-14 drubbing of the Huskies. He’ll never be the team’s leading rusher, but it’s good to see that in an uncertain backfield without a firmly established, go-to running back, Luck can take off and make plays on the ground.

So can sophomore tailback Stepfan Taylor. Despite posting a less-than-extraordinary stat line (20 carries for 81 yards and no touchdowns) Taylor looked solid against the Bruins, and he had several carries in which he picked up significant yards after contact. Taylor is certainly looking the most promising of the Stanford running backs (after Taylor, backup QB Alex Loukas and Luck each have more rushing yards than any other Cardinal running back), and he should get more carries this weekend against Wake Forest. Check out these clips of Taylor from the last time he was a feature back, at Mansfield High School in Texas:

With a few more carries and the opportunity to establish a rhythm and comfort as the team’s top back, Taylor could bust out and have a big game in the next several weeks.

That is also the timeline for figuring out the practicality of Stanford’s dreams of a January return to the Rose Bowl. Sacramento State was a gimme; UCLA looked like a worthy sparring partner for Washington State in the race for the worst PAC-10 team. Wake Forest barely beat Duke last week and the Demon Deacons may not be a true test of football strength. But beginning Week 4, Stanford must travel to Notre Dame and then to Oregon in consecutive weeks. If the Card are 5-0 after that stretch, we’ll know that we have a really good team on campus. Until then, we’ll just have to watch, wait, and speculate.

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The Daily Axe Staff
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