2007 Look Ahead: UCLA

For the third straight year, we are offering a series of preview capsules for all opponents on Stanford Football's schedule. In the past, we have started with the season finale and worked backward, but all of the attention of the Cardinal Nation in 2007 is on September, where four opponents visit Stanford Stadium to open the Jim Harbaugh Era. Up first are the UCLA Bruins, who return 20 starters.

UCLA Bruins

First Down: Quick Hitters

UCLA @ Stanford – September 1

Last Meeting: UCLA 31, Stanford 0

Side-by-Side Stats: (UCLA/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 10/8
2006 Points Per Game: 23.0/10.6
2006 Rushing Yards Per Game: 130/65
2006 Yards Per Carry: 3.9/2.1
2006 Passing Yards Per Game: 200/167
2006 Pass Completion Rate: 56.0/52.8
Returning Defensive Starters: 10/8
2006 Points Allowed Per Game: 19.9/31.4
2006 Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game: 91/211
2006 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 2.8/4.9
2006 Passing Yards Allowed Per Game: 223/177
2006 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 56.1/60.3
2006 Record: 7-6/1-11
2007 Projected Record: (10-2, 7-2)/(3-9, 2-7)
2007 Projected Pac-10 Finish: 2nd/T-9th

Second Down: Offense

In this space last year, I wrote, "This offense will suffer one of the greatest drop-offs in the nation."  I am rarely this right, so indulge me here: a 2005 unit that chalked up 39 points and 431 yards per game scored just 23 points on 330 yards per game last season, despite a vastly better defense that gave the offense more possessions and better field possession.

The good news for Bruins fans is that while the numbers will not be at their 2005 level, they will be much stronger than last year.  Quarterback Ben Olson is the brightest star on the team.  The junior was a top-ranked quarterback recruit in his class and has lived up to the hype, completing 64 percent of his passes before an injury derailed his 2006 season in game five.  That means that junior Patrick Cowan is one of the most seasoned backups in the country, and given a new offensive coordinator at the helm (a move head coaches commonly make to stave off the hot seat for one more year), he may just be the starter before the Bruins head into the meat of their schedule in October.  UCLA cannot go wrong with whoever it plays here.

Tailback Chris Markey ran for a strangely quiet 1,107 yards last year, especially considering the fanfare that usually accompanies all things L.A.  He was no Maurice Jones-Drew, but he was Honorable Mention All Pac-10 and will likely move up to the First or Second Team in his senior campaign this autumn.  Kahlil Bell, a converted receiver, provides good hands and a nice flash of speed at the position, while sophomore fullback Chane Moline is the hammer.

Cowan and Olson distributed the ball incredibly evenly last year as no receiver reeled in more than 450 yards, but nine had at least 100 receiving yards.  With more consistency at quarterback and new offensive coordinator Jay Norvell (formerly Nebraska's OC), the Bruins should see their top receivers near the 1,000-yard mark this year, following in the footsteps of Bruin greats like Craig Bragg, J.J. Stokes and Freddie Mitchell.  Seniors Joe Cowan, Marcus Everett and Brandon Breazell are most likely to take that step forward, and they have the supporting talent to do just that.

The reason for my optimistic projections for the skill position guys is the line, which returns nine of its top 10.  The only losses are line coach Jim Colletto (Detroit Lions) and center Robert Chai.  True, the unit does not have the standout talent of USC, Oregon or even Arizona State, but nowhere on the football field does experience count for more.  UCLA should come close to the 185 ground yards per game, 4.8 yards per carry high watermark they hit in 2004, given a more consistent passing game to distract defenses and the return of the entire tailback corps.

All told, the offense will not put up numbers like a Hawaii, Texas Tech or USC, but it should be able to consistently move the ball against any defense, and its experience should make it as good as any offense in third-down, late-game and clutch situations.

Third Down: Defense

Where to begin with a unit that might put up the best numbers in the league?  (USC's defense is better, but faces a tougher schedule.)  Just one starter departs (First-Team All Pac-10 end Justin Hickman), but UCLA still sort of returns 11, as tackle Chase Moline, the Bruins' 2005 Rookie of the Year, is over a back injury that delegated him to backup duty in 2006.  Plus, the defense has proven itself in Westwood: last year they allowed under 20 points per game and just two touchdowns in the final three regular season games, including the stonewalling of USC.

The strength is what every defensive coordinator dreams of: his front seven.  Rushing yards allowed is by far the most important statistic in all college football (as often as not, the NCAA leader ends up the national champion – Florida was pretty close with just 73 yards per game allowed last year), and UCLA's front seven allowed just 91 yards per game and under three yards per carry last year.  The line notched 40 sacks under new defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker's aggressive scheme and should improve upon all of those numbers this year.  This is the best front four in the league.

Up front, Hickman did tally 12.5 sacks, but his 42 tackles placed him just ninth on the team.  He went undrafted in April, suggesting he was more a product of Walker's system than a standout talent.  Senior Nikola Dragovic may take over the position, though UC Davis transfer Tom Blake could also figure heavily into Walker's plans.  The opposite end, Bruce Davis, was Second-Team All Pac-10 last year (12.5 sacks), so whoever lines up opposite him will enjoy a relatively clean shot at the quarterback.  That is especially true with two seniors with a combined 53 starts - Kevin Brown and Brigham Harwell - looking to hold Moline off at defensive tackle.

The linebacking corps is relatively unknown and small (middle Christian Taylor is the biggest at 6'0", 222 pounds) but also talented and fast.  Strongside backers Aaron Whittington, a senior, and John Hale, a junior, both made the All Pac-10 Freshman Team, and sophomore weakside linebacker Reggie Carter was the MVP of last year's scout team.  Given the limelight, and the experience all around them, all three could move from from freshmen standouts to All Pac-10 stars.

The secondary did not put up great numbers last year, but it should this year as it features many of UCLA's best athletes.  Senior safeties Dennis Keyes and Chris Horton (Second-Team All-Pac-10) are two of the team's best NFL prospects next year, and corners Trey Brown, a senior, and Alterraun Verner, a sophomore, also earned accolades from the Pac-10 office last season.  Talk about depth: Verner may only see the field in nickel situations, as junior Rodney Van was last year's starter opposite Brown.  The only question is size.  Just like the linebackers, the corners are a few inches too short for the next level, with none of the likely top four cracking six feet.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

If any one team has tormented Stanford in recent years, you would figure it would be USC.  But the Cardinal almost pulled the upset of the century in 2004, and the losses the last two years have been so lopsided and expected that they did not really sting.  Arguably, same thing with Cal – there was no shame in last year's performance and no other recent Big Game has been in serious doubt.

So you could make the argument that UCLA has been the biggest thorn in the Cardinal's side these past few years.  Not to emphasize the obvious, but Stanford last scored a point in Pasadena five years ago.  (UCLA has hung 52 on Stanford in the meanwhile.)  And before you take solace that this year's season opener is in Palo Alto, the 2005 contest at Stanford Stadium was the most crushing sporting event I have seen in person.  The Cardinal were 4-2, led 24-3 midway through the fourth and looked on their way to their first bowl bid since 2001.  But UCLA scored three touchdowns in the last eight minutes of regulation and a fourth in overtime to win the 30-27 thriller.

A similar effect could occur this year.  Stanford will probably be a double-digit underdog, I would guess by 12 points.  So while the Cardinal do not need a win to salvage their season, if UCLA wins in either the runaway or soul-crushing fashion they have the last three years, a chunk of Jim Harbaugh's luster could evaporate before his era truly begins.  On the flip side, a strong showing coupled with a win against San Jose State two weeks later would give Stanford much-needed momentum: its next four games are among the toughest on the schedule (Oregon, Arizona State, at USC and TCU).

I do not normally do this (and bit my tongue all those years the talking heads at home called for Lloyd Carr's head), but if Karl Dorrell does not make the BCS this year, he needs to go.  Any head coach in the country would die for his team's experience (20 returning starters), lack of attrition (Medlock was the team's only draft pick in Round 5 – that is the fewest players drafted and lowest first pick in 10 years), talent pool (UCLA is getting four- and five-star California kids like never before now that USC is almost too big for many of those recruits) and schedule (all five toughest games in L.A.).  It is now or never for Dorrell – if he cannot win under these circumstances, when in the world should he be expected to?

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