ou won’t find UCLA in any national top 25 ranking or even on many lists of Pac-12 South championship contenders. But the Bruins aren’t exactly the 2009 Washington State Cougars, either, and might even have a couple of very surprising wins up their sleeves for 2011.
Both UCLA wins thus far have come against bad teams–San Jose State and Oregon State. Collectively the two teams have won once this season and put up just over 16 points per game. Oregon State needed overtime against FCS Sacramento State, and then lost to the Hornets at home in Corvallis. UCLA’s losses haven’t been particularly admirable, either, as the team fell by 29 to a Texas squad that’s yet to encounter a solid opponent and lost by 4 at Houston.
UCLA’s problems have begun on the defense, where the Bruins have given up roughly 31 points per game against what is probably the easiest third of its schedule. Texas put up 49 points and 284 yards rushing in the Rose Bowl while converting 60% of its third down conversion attempts; Houston’s 38 points came off 310 passing yards from senior quarterback Case Keenum and an even more cushy 62% success rate on third down. Even San Jose State, which has a -57 point differential through the season’s first 4 games, managed over 200 yards on the ground against the Bruins.
UCLA hasn’t consistently shut down the run or the pass for opposing offenses, and Stanford will present the most balanced and overall most talented scoring attack that the Los Angelenos have seen this fall. While Andrew Luck could carve up the UCLA secondary and wake up on Sunday having played his best statistical game of the season to date, the Card will likely rely primarily on the running backs to power the offense.
In last season’s early September meeting between these teams, Stanford only gave Luck 24 throws, and he completed a season-low 46% of them. But on the run, Luck contributed 63 yards on 7 carries, while Stepfan Taylor led all rushers with 81 yards and Tyler Gaffney chipped in another 28. Stanford got 58% of its offense in the run game while dominating time of possession and milking the clock all the way to a 35-0 win in Pasadena. No Stanford receiver caught more than 4 balls, Luck threw for only 151 yards and the Card were happy to methodically break UCLA down.
This year, Stanford will likely use the passing game more often and enjoy the benefits of a more finely-tuned throwing strategy. Luck is a year more mature and UCLA has not significantly improved. With a head coach that is fonder of airing it out than Jim Harbaugh was and the home field advantage of Stanford Stadium, the Card will almost surely give Luck more chances to throw. Even though Stanford has cruised in 3 easy victories so far, Luck’s season low in passing attempts is still 2 throws higher than the 24 he threw last year in LA. That said, expect 100 yards rushing from Stepfan Taylor and plenty of carries between the tackles for tailbacks Taylor, Anthony Wilkerson, Tyler Gaffney and Jeremy Stewart.
Whether UCLA can avoid initiating a shut-out against Stanford as a yearly occurrence remains less certain. As Scott Allen points out, it’s been an awfully long time since Stanford last held an opponent scoreless in consecutive years: Harry Truman was president the last time it happened.
Junior quarterback Richard Brehaut has been competent but not stellar since taking over the starting job early this season, and he’s a definite improvement over Kevin Prince, who split time with Brehaut against Stanford last year but threw the majority of the Bruins’ passes in that game. Brehaut completed over two-thirds of his passes last week against Oregon State and hasn’t thrown an interception in 2011. (For what little it’s worth, Brehaut’s quarterback rating this season is very similar to that of Andrew Luck in Luck’s first year as the Stanford starter.) Stanford also approaches its first game without Shayne Skov, and the team will presumably need in-game experience to adapt to not having one of its best players. The defense’s adjustment to playing with a Skov-less unit could determine how successful Brehaut’s day becomes.
UCLA will test that by putting tailbacks Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman to work. Together the two have been good for 150 yards and 1-2 touchdowns per game. If Stanford can limit the production of Franklin and Coleman while putting pressure on Brehaut, it will be an early indication that the team might absorb the season-ending Skov injury with little negative consequence.
Considering the virtually guaranteed win-loss outcome of Saturday’s game–after all, it would take something just short of a miracle for UCLA to win on the Farm–observing how the linebacking corps and the defense as a whole reacts to losing Skov will likely be the most interesting part of the game. So, too, will be seeing if Stanford can play a tight, well-executed first half. The Card have not done so against Duke or Arizona, and will need to remedy the mental block separating it from an excellent game-opening 30 minutes before the big boys come up on Stanford’s schedule later this season.
Until then, Stanford will have no problem winning and beating the 20.5-point spread. Expect the Card to improve its all-time record against UCLA to 34-45-3.
Verdict: Stanford beats UCLA, 47-10
How to Follow the Game
7:30 pm PST, Saturday, October 1
Stanford Stadium, Stanford, California
Live: Tickets at TiqIq
TV: Fox Sports Net
Radio: KZSU (90.1 FM or streaming online); KNBR (1050 AM)
Social Media: @DailyAxe on Twitter
(Headline image courtesy of Neon Tommy on Flickr)