How To Beat UCLA, Again

It appeared that the Farm Boys were already serious when they plowed UCLA at the line of scrimmage in last week's 35-17 rout, but the selection of black uniforms for Friday's Pac-12 title game shows that Stanford is kicking the intensity up one more notch.

"They give us a little extra spark, especially the defense flying to the football," Ben Gardner raved about his team's alternate uniforms, his eyes gleaming. "They give us a bit of an attitude."

He's right: the Cardinal have worn the blacks three times. They've averaged a 54-18 victory in those games, which included a 45-19 home win over UCLA in 2011, the Bruins' last visit to Stanford Stadium. That time, though, David Shaw's boys wore their standard white helmets on top of the black jerseys. On Friday, they'll combine the black helmets (think of Stanford's Nike Pro Combat unis versus Notre Dame last season) with the black jerseys, creating a look identical to the one fans saw versus Duke earlier this year.

Last week's three-possession margin, though, showed that Stanford may not need extra uniform hoopla to defeat the Bruins again and make a return trip to the Rose Bowl. The Cardinal simply overwhelmed UCLA in both trenches, easily overcoming one glaring mistake: Reed Miller's poor long snap that left punter Daniel Zychlinksi out to dry and caused him to fumble.

Ideally, the Pac-12 title game will follow the same formula (minus the punter destruction), but a pair of potential complications loom. Zychlinski has been ruled out following the vicious hit he took from Anthony Barr on the aforementioned play, meaning Stanford will be without a key specialist in likely adverse weather conditions. (Complicating matters, the "Polish Rifle" Zychlinski also holds for field goal attempts. Last Saturday's 84-degree weather is a wonder of the past, and weird conditions have the potential to neutralize Stanford's seeming advantages. Fortunately, steady Drew Terrell will return to action. Still, as 2012 Bay Area football fans know all too well, a back-up punt returner in a home championship game played under wet conditions is a recipe for disaster (see Williams, Kyle).

Here are some other tasks necessary for Stanford to avoid a Pac-12 title letdown.

Keep Hundley in the Pocket
The conference has learned just how dangerous UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is with both his arms and legs, but Stanford was able to keep the freshman largely contained in the pocket in last week's regular season finale. He did escape the Cardinal's initial rush during the Bruins' first possession, flushing out of the pocket to buy time and connect with Shaquelle Evans for a 71-yard downfield strike. From that point forward, however, Hundley was rarely able to escape and showcase his mobility. He was sacked seven times and pummeled on countless more occasions. If that happens again, Stanford is Rose Bowl-bound.

"One thing that we're anticipating is [Hundley] getting out of the pocket and running a little bit more," defensive end Gardner said. "Being that this is the last game of the season, there's not as much of a worry about keeping him healthy for upcoming games. So we're focusing really hard this week on keeping him in the pocket and containing him so our pass rush can get home and get more sacks."

Clean Football
Ben Rhyne, who backs up Daniel Zychlinski, doesn't need to be spectacular. Stanford does, however, need a mistake-free performance from him when punting or holding for field goal attempts. UCLA entered last week's battle having blocked six kicks over two contests, and they were already waiting in the backfield to devour Zychlinksi after Miller bounced his long snap in the second quarter. Since the Bruins are decisively worse than Stanford on both lines of scrimmage, special teams mistakes in wet conditions present one hope of evening up this fight.

Keep Fauria in Check Again
Another potential thorn in Stanford's side is UCLA tight end Joe Fauria, who only caught two passes before garbage time in the first meeting. Much credit must go to A.J. Tarpley (the Pac-12's best linebacker in pass coverage, robbed of all-conference mention) and a Cardinal defense that has shut down elite tight ends for almost all of the season. San Jose State's Ryan Otten and Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins both hauled in only two catches against Stanford, while Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert was largely absent outside of a 24-yard touchdown catch Derek Mason probably wishes he could have back. (The Cardinal curiously blitzed on third and long.)

If Fauria is again contained, UCLA's hope lies with over-the-top connections with Evans, who proved dangerous but unreliable against Stanford's improved secondary last Saturday. Short and intermediate routes can best neutralize a ferocious pass rush, and that's precisely where Fauria can come in.

Repeat Physical Dominance
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Stanford held Doak Walker finalist Jonathan Franklin to 3.1 yards per carry, less than half his 6.3 average entering the contest. Stepfan Taylor, meanwhile, racked up 7.1 yards per rush in the Cardinal's win less than a week ago. An already-porous Bruins' offensive front dropped to 118th of 120 teams nationally in pass protection following seven Stanford sacks. If the Farm Boys continue to maul the Baby Blue up front, UCLA will drop closer to the cellar and further from the Rose Bowl.


David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.


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