UCLA Preview

Stanford's ineffective offense needs a lot of things to help it out this weekend, and one of them is not the conference's stingiest pass defense. That's what the Card will get when conference-leading UCLA comes calling at 12:30 at Stanford Stadium on Saturday. For all of the key matchups that will determine this game, read on for our preview of the Cardinal vs. Bruins.

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It might not be as bad as we think, Cardinal Fans. Yes, last week's 35-0 pasting that the Card suffered at the hands of the Oregon Ducks was embarrassing and should have opened quite a few pairs of eyes about what significant hurdles this team must overcome in order to squeeze some respectability out of the 2003 campaign. Yes, Stanford has patently failed to carry over any of the pre-conference momentum that it had built up with strong showings against San Jose State and at BYU. Yes, the offense squandered seven straight shots at the end zone from within the 5-yard line, helping to ensure that Stanford would suffer its first shutout of the year and its first shutout in 83 games. Yes, the run defense was exposed as being a little more mortal, a little less impenetrable.

But it didn't have to be that bad last Saturday. Baseball is generally known as the game of inches, but in last week's game it became painfully clear, but clear nonetheless, to Stanford fans the world over that one changed play here or there, a ball bouncing Stanford's way instead of going in favor of Oregon, just a little luck going by way of Palo Alto instead of Autzen, might have on Saturday made a big difference. Luke Powell overthrowing a wide-open Mark Bradford on the second play from scrimmage, erasing what would have been a certain touchdown - since Bradford was more alone than Britney Spears at a CMA convention - and dousing Stanford's first good drive of the game. Michael Sgroi missing an easy field goal after a Stanford drive that he should and has routinely made throughout the year. Stanford spreading the field with five receivers on third-and-long backed up against their own end zone, causing Chris Lewis to chuck an easy interception up into the air that was returned for a touchdown. And then of course the seven-play series from inside the 5-yard line of the Ducks where Stanford just could not break the invisible barrier that was the Oregon goal line. If maybe one or two of these plays goes in favor of Stanford last Saturday, the Card are right back in the game with the pressure of not having scored off their shoulders, the defense more relaxed, and the offense starting to regain some of the faith they used to have in Lewis' abilities as a field general.

But it was not to be last week - everyone knows that none of these potential turning-points turned in Stanford's favor, and as a result the boys in red were unable to get off the snide for a full sixty minutes. Would it be too obvious to say that the same sort of play cannot take place this week as Stanford takes on the Bruins from UCLA? Of course it would. But this point needs to be forcefully hammered home: if Stanford wants to beat UCLA and start to regain its rightful position as a power-player in the Pacific-10 Conference, then it needs to make some very drastic changes in its play this week. What follows is thus an explication of the weapons that the Rose Bowl inhabitants bring up north with them this week, and how Stanford's play in confronting these aspects of the Bruin attack will have to be unlike anything we have seen from the Cardinal recently.

What they got: youngsters for tailbacks

Tyler Ebell, Maurice Drew and Mark Bradford won't play directly against each other on Saturday, since Ebell and Drew are on the same team and Bradford plays on offense for Stanford, but that doesn't change the fact that this week's Stanford-UCLA match-up is a chance for observers to watch a few of the most exciting young players in the conference on the same field. Last year Ebell became the first UCLA freshman to rush for at least triple digits in six consecutive games, on his way to a monster year in which he totaled 994 yards on the ground and broke into touchdown-land 10 times. While he has not been as statistically dominant this year - Ebell's season high this year is a mere 61 yards, accumulated against Arizona on 14 carries - he is still a disconcerting runner for the Stanford defense to have to think about. With Manuel White sidelined for the remainder of the year with a fractured right scapula, Ebell is now the active leader in carries this year for UCLA, with 86 carries for 310 yards. The precocious redshirt Sporting News 2002 All-American will be expected to churn out more than a few yards on the ground come Saturday. He will get plenty of assistance from Drew, who holds the record for the longest single run ever by a Bruin true freshman for the 83-yard dash he popped off against Arizona State to give UCLA the lead for good in that game. Drew now leads the Bruins in rushing with 320 yards on 55 carries.

What we got: a beleaguered but proud unit

While the rush defense for Stanford no longer has the same swagger that it did following the first few games of the year, when it looked as if the only method of moving the ball downfield against the cardinal and white would be through air travel, the unit remains one of the most positive aspects of this Stanford club. They still rank 22nd in the nation in terms of rushing defense, and if last Saturday's surrender of 172 yards and two touchdowns to Terrence Whitehead at Autzen is discounted as an aberration, then the run D remains a formidable force. UCLA is not a team that scores much or that gets a ton of yardage on the ground - indeed it is ranked dead last in the conference in rushing offense with an average of just over 100 yards on the ground. This is just the game for the Stanford front line to re-emerge as the heart and soul of a revamped Stanford defense.

What they got: Sophomore Special - second-year quarterbacks with prime targets

It does not take a lot to realize that down at UCLA the offense is more about a system than any one particular player or group of player. Perhaps that helps explain the Bruins' consistency year after year as a solid offensive squad. In 2003, with true sophomores Drew Olson and Matt Moore holding the offensive reins, the Bruins don't seem as offensively imposing as in other years, but their overall record certainly does not reflect any sort of drop-off in scoring capacity. Both sophomores are capable of leading the Bruins to victory, and both have done so already this year.  Olson has served as the starter a bit more often, with Moore always ready and prepared in the wings. Last week, for example, saw Moore get the starting call against the Solar Satans and respond with a huge day: 14 of 28 passes for 190 yards while completing a pass with seven different players. Olson is no slouch either; the second-year QB has already thrown for over 1,000 yards while ranking sixth in the Pac-10 in passing yards per game with 163.9 on the year.

It's no secret that the Bruins like to make their living in the air, and you can't blame them with the prime targets that their quarterbacks have. Craig Bragg is obviously the famous name which is easy to pin on the UCLA receiving corps. The redshirt junior still has a year of eligibility to improve on the stellar numbers he has posted so far this year: 44 catches for 691 yards and three trips to the promised land of six. Bragg sets a solid example for the rest of the Bruins receivers with his consistency and professionalism - if he catches a pass against Stanford on Saturday that will put him at 32 consecutive games in which he has hauled in a throw. Supplementing Bragg's work so far this year have been Junior Taylor and Marcedes Lewis, who weigh in averaging 13.4 and 14.7 yards per catch, respectively, and have three touchdowns between them. Together Bragg, Taylor, and Lewis form quite a trio of possible destinations for any ball that Moore or Olson might hawk up into the air - there are few quarterback insurance policies better than having more than one target to choose from, especially when a quarterback gets sufficient time in the pocket.

What we got: a pass rush?

Which is exactly why Stanford must pressure the quarterback this weekend. The three sacks and solitary quarterback hurry which Stanford posted against Oregon won't cut mustard this week - the receivers for UCLA are too good and too quick and will make Stanford's secondary pay in a big way if the defensive front is unable to hurry the UCLA QB. The good news is that since UCLA is not a running team, Stanford will be able to lag its linebackers back into pass coverage over the middle a bit more, which will take pressure off the defensive backs and also add to the pressure when the Cardinal bring the linebackers in on blitzes. But surprise can only be effective for so long - a solid pass rush is the key to making Stanford's defensive endeavors work on Saturday. If the Card can't make the Bruins feel as if they are constantly running out of time, then it will be another long weekend for the Stanford secondary.

What they got: a damn good defense

No clever titles for this portion of the UCLA team. Their defense is just good. The Bruins have the best pass defense in the Pac-10, making it imperative on the Cardinal to not get behind early and thus feel pressured to go to the air in the second half. Against a squad like the Bruins, which only surrenders about 213 yards per game through the air, it will be difficult to get airborne results. The baby bears' scoring defense is second in the conference, as Bruin opponents are averaging just under 20 points per contest. Such defensive success is due in large part to the play of senior linebacker Brandon Chillar, who paces his team with 92 tackles, giving him a Pac-10-leading average of 11.5 tackles per game. For contrast's sake, that is about four tackles more than Oshiomogho Atogwe's average which leads Stanford's team. Right at the forefront of this defensive leadership is Dave Ball, whose name sits atop the Pac-10 leader board in sacks and tackles for loss, with 11.5 and 15.5. Can Stanford's greenhorn offensive line withstand the onslaught that is Ball this Saturday? The Bootleg can't predict the future outright, but we can indeed do so conditionally: if Stanford can't stop the Bruin senior defensive end then it will be a long and tiresome offensive outing for the Card.

What we got: a need to win

Quite simply put, Stanford needs this game. We dropped a winnable one at home against Washington State, and then we got slaughtered in Oregon. To come back home, resettle and re-emphasize the basics, and come away with a solid home win against a team that currently sits atop the conference standings would prove a lot about the gumption of this young and inexperienced squad. Right now the math doesn't look too good - the Bruin defense allows teams to score less than 20 points each week on average, while the Stanford offense has only been able to muster about 17 points per week. This week's contest will have to be one of those games where Stanford draws on all the inspirational resources that it can in order to create some special play out of its men. On home soil, against a powerhouse team that is tied for first in the Pac-10 and which has proven so far to be a stingy defensive machine, the conditions are not ideal. Good teams win even when faced with such situations - mediocre and bad teams resign themselves to home losses. The sentiment here is that this young bunch of Stanford football players belongs to the former group, and thus that the determination and drive will not be lacking on Saturday. Will the talent come together? We'll just have to wait and see what we got in our guts.

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