The flow and details of Saturday's game at the Rose Bowl are not nearly as important as the end result. The game at UCLA was ostensibly their make or break contest of the year. Win and you are sitting at 5-3 with three games to go, including a home game against the weakest opponent in that trio. Lose, and you stay stuck at four wins, needing two against opponents on the road who appear to be significantly stronger than the Bruins you just failed to beat.
To state it more bluntly, UCLA has the most awful defense of any of Stanford's final four opponents. The Bruins came into this game giving up numbers that were off-scale compared to the rest of the conference. They ranked dead last in total defense and rushing defense. UCLA had given up 452 yards per game, as compared to the next worst 378 by the abominable Washington Huskies. On the ground, the Bru-crew were a veritable sieve, yielding 237 yards per game, as compared to the 188 allowed Washington. 237 per game! This defense was precisely the recipe that Stanford's offense needed for a mini-resurrection. J.R. Lemon and the Cardinal rushing crew were one of the more potent attacks through the half of the season, but they had fallen off of late.
Sounds like a good matchup for Lemon & company, right? It only gets better when you learn that the Bruin defense constructed a gameplan more conducive to an allowed running attack than anything Stanford has seen this year. Better in fact than anything Stanford's rushers have dreamed all year.
"They put only six guys in the box," commented fifth-year senior tight end Alex Smith afterward. "We feel like any time that happens, we have to take advantage."
In response, the Cardinal put forth a putrid running display. At the half, the team's leading rusher was quarterback Trent Edwards with 36 net yards on seven "carries" that were rollouts on intended pass plays. The Stanford offense controlled the clock in that first half, with 19:01 to UCLA's 10:59, and the Card ran 47 total offensive plays in those 19 minutes. But when you add Edwards' seven scrambles to his attempts, you find that Stanford called for passes 33 out of those 47 plays. Against the very worst rushing defense in the Pac-10, Stanford threw the ball 70.2% of the time in the first half. When they did run the ball, their two tailbacks totaled just 27 yards on 12 carries.
For the game, Lemon would average a mere 1.4 yards per carry, while fifth-year senior Kenneth Tolon averaged 3.1 per carry. Combined, they netted 42 yards over four quarters against the worst rushing defense a Stanford team has faced in years. Even when you add in some end-around rushes and Edwards' successful scrambles, the Cardinal ground game amassed a net of 83 yards. That is just one-third of what UCLA has given up on average this year... in a game where the defense - by design - begged to have the ball run on them.
"They put us in a situation where they dared us to run the football, and we failed," said a solemn Buddy Teevens after the game.
Bad news got worse when Stanford's passing game produced an appalling mess. Edwards threw the ball 26 times in the first half, completing only half of his attempts for a total of 93 yards. Twice threw interceptions. In the second half, the struggles continued, completing 11 of 20 and throwing two more picks (one was called back on a roughing the passer penalty). His yardage stats were padded by a throw to Alex Smith in the final futile minute of the game, picking up 71 yards to push him over 200 for the game. But it was easily the worst looking game of the year for Edwards. At almost no time did he look like he could make consistent throws. He put balls over, around and short of targets.
To be fair, the flip side of the UCLA defense is that they kept almost everybody back in coverage, with a smart cover-two scheme. Edwards was handicapped by receivers who had a hard time all game getting open. As a result, he could almost never throw down the field. That being said, when he did have a line on targets, the redshirt sophomore Stanford quarterback quashed any flow of the offense with his errant passes. He in fact looked so uncharacteristically awful that observers had to question if he was feeling any after-effects from last week's knockout injuries he sustained against Oregon.
"No, I was fine," Edwards answers. "There is just no excuse for that performance out there today."
"It was tough to find throwing lanes or holes in the defense," he continues, in discussing the excessive coverage personnel UCLA employed against the Stanford passing game. "That's any defensive back's dream... But as a Division I quarterback, you have to make plays."
To make matters worse, the Stanford special teams had a tough day. They gave up a 68-yard punt return early in the second quarter for a touchdown that took the wind right out of the Cardinal's sails. After the defense was sliced and diced early for two drives into Stanford territory, with the second going 85 yards for a score, they settled down and held. Then the punt return stretched the score to 14-0, where it stood for much of the game. Earlier on punt coverage, redshirt sophomore Marcus McCutcheon blasted the return man before the ball arrived for a 15-yard penalty, his second such play in three games. The final gaffe for the punt team came on the very next series after that return score.
Stanford's offense had put together a modest drive, crossing midfield. The ineffective Lemon was replaced by Tolon in the running game, and the fifth-year senior promptly picked up a pair of first downs on the ground. But when the drive stalled at the UCLA 44-yard line, the punt team took the field. The ball was directly snapped to fifth-year senior Jared Newberry, who faked a hand-off as if the play were an end-around. Instead, it was designed to be a passing play, for Newberry to throw to fellow linebacker Kevin Schimmelmann. The redshirt junior indeed got open, as intended, but Newberry had to take off into the middle of the line of scrimmage running the ball.
"I was supposed to throw, but I couldn't see [Schimmelmann]," Newberry explains.
The abject failures of the offense and special teams make this 21-0 loss feel like the misery of last year's defeats against Oregon, Oregon State and Notre Dame. But there is one important difference. In those 2003 beat-downs, the Stanford defense was battered and abused. In this game at the Rose Bowl, the Cardinal "D" did an admirable job. Against a UCLA squad that scored an average of 36 points per game in Pac-10 play, the Stanford defense gave up only two scores.
"I think defensively we played well. Offensively, that was the frustration," commented Teevens afterward.
"Our defense played hard," offers fifth-year senior linebacker David Bergeron, who finished the game with three solo tackles, including one for a loss. "I think that's the hallmark we're trying to leave for the 2004 defense. The one thing we can control is effort."
"Our coaches did a great job scouting these guys," Bergeron continues. "On a majority of plays, we knew what they were going to run. Most of the time, we had guys in position to make plays."
So it is not a fair statement to call this game a total relapse into 2003 form. The defense is better this year and held up their end of the bargain. But the offensive output was absolutely horrific. UCLA had allowed 45 and 48 points scored on them in their last two games, and three other times this year let opponents put up more than 30 points. Stanford put up a goose egg, which is one of the greater statistical outliers in recent memory.
"We just played terrible," summed up offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who had no easy answers after his unit was shut out. "We didn't get the production we needed. We had chances the whole game... we just didn't make plays."
Cubit is also the quarterbacks coach and has the best insight into the alarmingly poor play by his starting signal caller. Nobody expected Edwards to throw so badly this weekend.
"He was rushing things early," Cubit comments. "Then I thought he got in a rhythm. Then UCLA jumped out 14-0... We couldn't get guys open, and they took away the vertical game."
"You have to hold the ball a little when you see those coverages," the despondent coordinator adds.
Something much more disturbing has to be in play for this offense than those details, though. The running game looked like a shell of a college attack, against a shallow front. Edwards looked like a ghost out on the field. You could lay some blame for both arguably on the offensive line, who was responsible for opening holes and protecting the passer. If the Stanford offense plays anything like this in their remaining games, some truly nasty results will come about.
If the wheels are not off this wagon, they sure are wobbling. It is simply depressing to see this dramatic of regression after the steps forward the team had taken, but now they have dropped to .500 and will be strong underdogs in their remaining games. 4-4 is no accomplishment, especially when you consider that Stanford flailed miserably in their final three games from that same record a year ago. Players charge that collapse is not imminent, however.
"We're a different team this year and don't have the same attitudes," Bergeron maintains. "This was a trip up. This was a fluke. We're not going to finish the season like this."
"We just have to grow," offers Alex Smith, who caught 10 balls for 136 yards in the game. "There are two ways to go. Either let it destroy you, or go out and get that fifth win. We've been stuck at four for a while."
- Smith left the field at one point in the third quarter, hurting after a hit he took as he fell to the ground at the end of a reception. He returned to the game, but the fifth-year senior injured his hip. After the game and his body cooled down, it tightened up and is a concern. We will watch this week to see his status for the Arizona State game.
- Redshirt junior wide receiver Justin McCullum played very little in the game because of an ankle injury he sustained early in the contest.
- A hot topic of late has been the rotation at the linebacker positions for Stanford, and you may have noticed redshirt freshman Udeme Udofia on the field at times at the weakside "rush" outside linebacker position in the UCLA game. He played because redshirt junior Timi Wusu was out with a hamstring injury.
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