Gameday Breakdown: Stanford at UCLA

Our best gameday breakdown yet lists what Stanford fans need to root for to ensure that a six-win Stanford is playing in a bowl. (And no, it's not automatic.) We hunt down some unbelievable stats (Stanford allows -0.8 yards per carry on third downs, no typo), list UCLA and Stanford's statistical strengths and, as always, project each team's rushing and passing yardage and the final score.

Gameday Breakdown:
Stanford (4-3, 3-1 Pac-10) at UCLA

Sat. Oct. 18, 1 p.m. PT

Last year: UCLA 45, Stanford 17. The offense awoke from its two-year coma, and that was progress enough to give Stanford fans optimism in Coach Jim Harbaugh's first game on the Farm, despite the lopsided final margin.

Stanford this year: Arizona was the preseason darkhorse, but it's been Stanford thus far that has turned heads in the Pac-10. The Card are 4-3 overall and 3-1 in the league, with wins over  Oregon State (38-26),  San Jose State (23-10), Washington (35-28) and, last week, Arizona (24-23), with Alex Loukas driving the Card down for the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds left. Stanford's losses have all come on the road, at Arizona State (17-41), at TCU (14-31) and at Notre Dame (21-28). With USC, Oregon and Cal to close the season, UCLA looks to be a must-win if Stanford wants to reach six wins and become bowl eligible...

Bonus bowl-picture thoughts:
..Being bowl eligible and being in a bowl, however, are not the same. And history shows that six wins is not an automatic ticket. Even with today's over-saturated bowl schedule, plenty of six-win teams are left at home each December, including six-win BCS teams. Plus, bowls are a business, and teams with smaller fanbases are passed up all the time for less deserving teams that will better fill seats. Stanford's one of the worst draws in the Pac-10, and so being passed over for a bigger state school is a real risk for the Cardinal. So, what should Card fans root for to ensure a six-win Stanford gets that 13th game?

1. Most important: Root for a second Pac-10 team to make the BCS. The Pac-10 has a set number of slots, and if the BCS fills its ten slots with two Pac-10 teams, then the Holiday Bowl now gets the No. 3 Pac-10 team and the rest of the Pac-10 squads slides up a spot. (Plus, even if Stanford is in a bowl anyways, two Pac-10 BCS teams would improve the prestige of Stanford's bowl destination.) Oregon and Arizona already have two losses and plenty of season left to play, so the only one-loss Pac-10 team with a realistic shot to crash the BCS alongside USC is... Cal. Bowl politics makes strange bedfellows, what can I say? Go Bears. (Just root for USC to be out of the national title game, so Cal's Rose Bowl-less streak continues.)

2. Root for the Washington schools and UCLA. Barring a miracle, those schools are going to finish under .500, so any win they can steal from an Arizona State or Oregon is good news for the Card.

3. Root against the "middle four." Cal and USC are finishing well ahead of the six-win mark; UCLA and the Washington schools below. So for Stanford, any of those schools beating up on Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon and Oregon State is good news, because those later four schools are the main competition for the last Pac-10 bowl slots.

Tiebreaker: Root for the Pac-10 teams Stanford's already beat: Washington, Arizona and Oregon State. If a bowl committee has to decide between Stanford and Oregon State, the Card's head-to-head win will only help, while Stanford's odds in a Stanford/Arizona State selection will be much longer.

It is important to note that the Cardinal in relatively good shape because a lot of their wins are coming in conference. If the Cardinal does finish with six wins, they'll finish 5-4 in conference, and 1-2 out of it. That's going to help when the Card are compared to Arizona and Oregon, for example, who would both be 4-5 in conference, were they to finish with six wins.

UCLA this year: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Rick Neuheisel's 2008 UCLA, just like any UCLA squad under Karl Dorrell, is a case study in multiple-personality disorder, with the Bruins good enough to shock a top-25 team one week (27-24 over then-No. 18 Tennessee), and get absolutely embarrassed the next (0-59 at then-No. 18 BYU).

The Bruins were smoked by Arizona the next week (31-10), but as the country has tuned out these past three weeks, UCLA has shown signs of life. The Bruins were surprisingly competitive in losses to Fresno State (31-36) and, last week, at Oregon (24-31), and did what they were supposed to against Washington State (28-3) on Oct. 4, no small feat for a Bruin squad.

The last three weeks, then, UCLA has outscored its opponents by 11 points, identical to Stanford over the same span. Both teams played one poor team and two top-25 caliber teams. Yet the perception is that Stanford has continued to climb these past few weeks, while UCLA has continued to slide. 

Key stats:

In Stanford's corner:

- Stanford is losing its average game 24-27, while UCLA loses its average game 20-31, though a 59-0 loss tends to distort the numbers.
- Stanford is outgained 334-386 on average, while UCLA is outgained 298-367.
- Stanford's 3-1 in games decided by eight or less, while UCLA is 1-2.

In UCLA's corner:

- UCLA coughs up 1.8 turnovers per game to Stanford's 2.3.
- The Bruins commit 4.8 penalties each game, to Stanford's 7.1.
- Stanford, surprisingly, given its ground-first orientation, has possessed the ball for only 27:43 of its average game. UCLA's mark of 30:25 is better.

Stanford appears to have a slight statistical edge, as the stats it dominates (points and yards) are more central than the stats UCLA wins (penalties, turnovers and time of possession).

When Stanford has the ball:

In the air:

Jim Harbaugh has one heck of a quarterback situation on his hands. A healthy Tavita Pritchard couldn't have had that much of an edge over the field considering Pritchard's inconsistent play this season, the potential of Andrew Luck and the poise of Alex Loukas against Arizona.

Now, Pritchard could miss the game entirely, but the more interesting scenario if he can play Saturday but might not be 100 percent, or has to be limited in practice this week. You'd usually go with your starter, even if he has to miss a Tuesday practice or is only 85 percent, but, for Stanford, the gap is narrow enough that those might be straws that break the proverbial camel's back in Harbaugh's decision-making. Plus, Harbaugh could point to Pritchard's injury when making the move, which allows him to preserve Pritchard's confidence and avoid creating locker-room conflict, or overly upsetting anyone on the team who may want Pritchard under center.

Statistically, this looks to be an average passing defense for Stanford to attack. Or, phrased with a pro-Bruin perspective, given UCLA's struggles this season, the pass D is one of the strongest links on the squad. The Cardinal are averaging 150 passing yards per game, and have a 7-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio below football's Mendoza line. UCLA allows 196 passing yards per game, which is pretty stout, but has allowed opposing quarterbacks 13 touchdowns to four interceptions on 56 percent accuracy and a 125.4 quarterback rating. Then again, UCLA quietly played the toughest non-conference schedule in the Pac-10 (Tennessee, BYU and Fresno State), plus they've already faced two of the league's top passing attacks in Oregon and Arizona. So we'll call for UCLA's pass D to do better than its season average, holding Stanford to 150 passing yards, its season average.

On the ground:

Here, the Cardinal's edge is sharper. The Card average 184 rushing yards per game with 12 rushing touchdowns on a phenomenal 4.9 yards per carry. With the back half of the schedule thornier than the front, that 4.9 should come down, but, by means of comparison, Stanford's 3.0 yards per carry last year was its best mark since 2002, and USC and Oregon were the only Pac-10 teams to average better than 4.9 yards per carry in 2007. Unsurprisingly then, Stanford has scored a touchdown on 15 of its 21 red zone trips, a hidden statistic that stems from the rushing prowess and goes a long way in explaining the Card's success in close games this year.

For UCLA, meanwhile, the less said about the rush defense, the better. The Bruins allow 171 ground yards per game on 4.6 yards per carry, their worst marks since 2004. The linebackers are nothing special, but the real weakness is a defensive line that lost its two best players (end Bruce Davis and tackle Kevin Brown) from last year, and didn't have a surplus of ready talent waiting to step in. UCLA ran for 338 yards on a 6.8 average on the Card last year.

I don't think Stanford is capable of returning the favor, but the Card offensive line and running backs need to react like dogs to red meat: the Bruins' line is Oregon State or San Jose State-esque. Stanford's coaches know this, and all are naturally more conservative on the road anyways, which I think plays to Stanford's advantage here. Don't pass too much, don't try to outsmart yourself, just run simple off-tackle and iso plays until UCLA proves it can stop them. I think, 200 Cardinal rushing yards later, it will be quite apparent that Stanford's big men were too much for the Bruins' front seven.

When UCLA has the ball:

In the air:

Junior QB Kevin Craft's stats are decidedly mediocre, and only somewhat better than Tavita Pritchard's: 205 passing yards per game, a quarterback rating of 109, and six touchdowns to five interceptions. Four caveats, however:

- First, Craft brings an element of mobility that Stanford teams have struggled with in the past.
- Second, Craft gets better as the game improves, completing 54 percent of first-half passes, but 62 percent in the second half.
- Third, Craft has found two reliable receiving threats in junior wideout Terrence Austin (52 yards per game) and junior tight end Ryan Moya (45 yards per game, three touchdowns)
- Fourth, Stanford's pass defense has been a Jekyll-and-Hyde act this season.

Who would have thought Willie Tuitama and Arizona, which completed 28 of 41 passes against the '07 Card, would so struggle in their passing game against this year's Stanford secondary? Not me, not Vegas, and not too many Cardinal fans after the secondary's struggles to that point this season. Consider:

- The Cardinal, under a new defensive coordinator, are allowing 272 passing yards per game, with 10 touchdowns to three interceptions, even after last week's lockdown of the Wildcats. Put simply, those numbers mean Stanford's secondary has been on SportsCenter a lot -- and not for the three interceptions.
- On third and seven or longer, obvious passing downs where the D should know what's coming and have the advantage, the Cardinal have allowed quarterbacks 22 completions on 33 attempts for 16 first downs. Teams are converting almost half (16/33) of their third-and-longs on Stanford through the air, which is awful, no way to spin it.
- On third and seven, eight or nine, teams have converted 8 of 12 first downs when passing.
- And, finally, in the red zone, Stanford's secondary has six touchdowns allowed and no interceptions to its name.

My biggest question, therefore, for Saturday is which Cardinal secondary shows up: was the Arizona game a one-week fluke, or has the unit legitimately improved? Lacking ESP, we'll split the difference and call for 240 UCLA passing yards, but if Stanford loses the game and, as a result, a shot at a bowl bid, the death blow will almost assuredly come via Kevin Craft's arm.

On the ground:

Here, like when Stanford is running it, I really like the Card's chances. UCLA is averaging a puny 92 yards per game and 2.94 yards per carry, Buddy Teevens-like numbers. Freshman Derrick Coleman and senior Kahlil Bell each average about 40 yards per game running. Bell is the bruiser, with five touchdowns, while Coleman is much more explosive, averaging 6.1 yards per carry to Bell's 2.7.

Stanford allows a stout 3.3 yards per carry and 114 yards per game, but a closer look paints a brighter picture yet. The Card are allowing just 3.0 yards per carry in the third quarter and 2.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, when ground yards matter most. Plus, Jim Harbaugh needs to send these stats around the league when coaches sit down to vote for their All-Pac-10 defensive tackles: Stanford is holding its opponents to 1.7 yards per carry in the red zone, and an unreal -0.8 per carry on third downs, no typo. The one negative stat is that opponents do have 12 rushing touchdowns against Stanford this season, as many as Stanford's rush attack has scored.

UCLA, however, is no TCU running the football, and I still can't get over those third down and red zone averages. I think the Bruins rush for 80 yards Saturday, and I think Stanford's line continues to make an impact in the red zone and on thirds-and-short.

Vegas Prediction:

UCLA by 2.5. Any line within a field goal is essentially a toss-up.

My Prediction:

Stanford 28, UCLA 24.

Stanford has a better offensive line. Stanford has a better defensive line. If a football coach could choose to have the edge at only two position groups, those would be the two. A lot of things could happen Saturday (paging Stanford's secondary), but Stanford should be able to run the ball better than UCLA. That's a good enough reason for me to pick the underdog Card to rack up a 350 to 320 yardage edge and grab their biggest win in years.

This season:

Predicted: Notre Dame 30, Stanford 20. Actual: Notre Dame 28, Stanford 21.
Predicted: Stanford 28, Washington 27. Actual: Stanford 35, Washington 28.
Predicted: Stanford 34, San Jose State 24. Actual: Stanford 23, San Jose State 10.
Predicted: TCU 23, Stanford 10. Actual: TCU 31, Stanford 14.
Predicted: Arizona 34, Stanford 20. Actual: Stanford 24, Arizona 23

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