"Week Five": UCLA @ Stanford

The Bootleg's Scott Cooley was on hand for Tuesday's media luncheon, providing quotes from Jim Harbaugh, Chris Marinelli, and Clint Snyder. It's clear the team is relishing an opportunity to show it can "finish" games against quality opponents. Last year's disappointment at the Rose Bowl is unlikely to be repeated when a highly motivated Cardinal team suits it up against the Baby Blues Saturday.

"Week Five": UCLA @ Stanford

Finishing games has been the Achilles heal of the Cardinal in recent years. The time of 2:13 is a gut-wrenching memory in the minds of the Stanford faithful. That small window allowed UCLA to drive the length of the field and score with 10 seconds remaining in the game last season, preventing Stanford from defeating the Bruins at the Rose Bowl and ultimately costing the team a bowl berth in 2008.


"I think everyone remembers the UCLA game last year, especially defensively," said linebacker Clinton Snyder. "All offseason we've been stressing on the team to finish everything we do. So this is going to be a big statement game for the program, to show that we can finish games."


Stanford (3-1, 2-0) hopes to avoid a sixth-straight loss to UCLA (3-0, 0-0) on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. (PST) and the game will be televised regionally on ABC and broadcast over the airwaves on KNBR 1050 AM.


On paper, this matchup looks like a couple of Top 25 programs going at it, with strengths on different sides of the ball. UCLA ranks No. 9 in the nation in run defense (74.3 ypg) while the Cardinal boast the No. 11-ranked rushing offense, compiling 233.8 yards per game. These numbers point to a helmet-smashing, jock-grabbing, nose-bleeding night in the trenches. Something has got to give.


The Bruins also sit positioned as the No. 4 pass defense (82.2 ypg) in college football as well as the No. 15-ranked unit in total defense, surrendering just over 250 yards per outing.


"This is the best defensive line we've played, this is the best linebacker unit we've played and this is the best secondary we've played," head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Of course this is the best defense we've played, big challenge for us this week."


The Cardinal counters with an explosive special teams unit that leads the nation with a remarkable 41.7 kickoff return average. Powered by the ever-dangerous returner/receiver Chris Owusu, who already has tied a Pac-10 single-season record with three kickoff returns for touchdowns, the Bruins may elect to not put the ball in his hands.


"The thing is, you don't know what everyone is going to do so you have to be prepared for everything," said special teams coach D.J. Durkin. "There's obviously a plan where people say they are going to kick away from [Owusu] and we've got to take the right steps to be prepared when it happens. And then some teams are going to believe that they are better at coverage than what the teams we've already faced so they're going to kick to him. You can look at everything two different ways; it's all a matter of whatever their scheme or plan is as a staff, so we've got to prepare for anything."


Bruin quarterback Kevin Craft will make his second start of the season for UCLA after redshirt freshman Kevin Prince was sidelined with a broken jaw sustained during theTennessee game. Craft started 12 games for the Bruins last season, but wasn't spectacular and surrendered the job to Prince during spring competition.


In his first start of the season, in Week 3 against Kansas State, Craft went 13-of-24 for 186 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Craft's career touchdown-to-interception ratio as a Bruin isn't anything to write home about (8-21), but Coach Harbaugh talked about what assets he brings to the table.


"Athleticism, he's smart and has the ability to make the big play," he said. "He'll hang in the pocket and make some really good throws. I've always thought he was their best quarterback. I'm not there everyday, but it's hard to imagine what they don't see in him. I've been very impressed with Craft."


Stanford's signal-caller, Andrew Luck, struggled to find any rhythm in last week's contest against Washington. Harbaugh mentioned in the post-game conference that Luck was not "finishing his throws". To liken that concept to a baseball player, it's when a pitcher is aiming the ball instead of throwing the ball.


The gameplan this week could be to get Luck comfortable early. Who knows, perhaps the first few series will resemble that of the Wake Forest game where the offense came out throwing the ball and utilized the ground attack very sparingly on the first series or two.


"I kind of anticipated when we get into this stretch our passing has got to be more of a factor," mentioned Harbaugh. "We have a ton of confidence in Andrew. I think he is right on track. He has been extremely accurate with the only exception being three passes in half a quarter of football. He's managing the games flawlessly."


One reason Luck has done such a great job leading the offense is because he hasn't found himself on the ground too often. In four games, the Stanford offensive line has yielded just two sacks. That mark of a half-sack given up per game is tops in the country and tied with 10 other FBS teams.


"Not only sacks, but with a redshirt freshman quarterback, hits and hurries are just as meaningful as sacks," said offensive lineman Chris Marinelli, who suffered a separated shoulder in last year's game against UCLA. "They might not show up on the stat sheet, but it rattles a young guy to be hit back there. The funny thing about Andrew is that he 'likes' to get hit. But that's our goal, to never let that guy feel pressure."


Another facet of the game that has alleviated the pressure on Luck's shoulders is a 235-pound bruising tailback named Toby Gerhart. The nation's No. 3-ranked earth-churner (129.0 ypg) amassed a career-high 200 yards in last week's victory over the Huskies.


"Luckily, we've been able to establish the run in three out of four games like we wanted to and haven't had to rely on the pass," Marinelli said. "But we want to be a balanced team and we want to be able to sit back there and protect."


The Cardinal will be the most balanced offensive opponent the Bruins have faced this year.


UCLA is coming off an idle week heading into Stanford Stadium and much gets made of an off-week in terms of preparation time, players getting healthy and a team's focus. Coach Harbaugh said there a couple of ways to look at the benefit or distraction of a bye week.


"It's how you approach it," he iterated. "If you approach it as a vacation it's going to hurt you, but if you approach it as an improvement week it can really help you."

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