*UCLA will play Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday at 5:00 P.M. The game will be televised on Fox and is a rematch of Saturday's game, which saw the Cardinal beat the Bruins 35-17 at the Rose Bowl.
*The game will be played at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, since Stanford has a better conference record than the Bruins after winning the Pac-12 North.
*Stanford is ranked No. 8 in the most recent Associated Press Poll heading into the game, while the Bruins are ranked 17th.
*This is the second time UCLA will play in the Pac-12 Championship, which is in its second year. Last year, the Bruins lost to Oregon en route to a 6-8 record.
*Whichever team wins the game this week will play in the Rose Bowl game; the loser will likely play in either the Alamo Bowl or Holiday Bowl.
*The last time UCLA played in the Rose Bowl was January 1, 1999, when the Bruins lost to Wisconsin in Cade McNown's final season.
*According to the most recent weather reports, there is a 100% chance of rain showers this Friday night in Palo Alto, with temperatures in the mid-50's.
UCLA's Offense vs. Stanford's Defense
We're going to shorten up the preview a bit, given that we've written more about Stanford in the last week than anyone reasonably should. Since we went through the personnel last week, we're going to instead just analyze the matchups, and see if there's anything we can glean from last week's game that could apply to Friday.
As we talked about last week, and as was born out in the game on Saturday, Stanford's defense is very, very good. Their ability to pursue and tackle on initial contact is second to none in the Pac-12, and might very well put this defense in the argument for best in the nation.
Against the Bruins last week, the Stanford linebackers ate up every swing pass attempt, and any slow developing run play was stymied at or just after the line of scrimmage. The defensive line was generally able to get penetration against UCLA's offensive line with just a four man rush and, at times, with just a three man rush. The few times that the Cardinal blitzed were actually fairly devastating.
Because of the ease with which Stanford was able to get pressure, the Cardinal was able to drop seven or eight in coverage for most of the game. Brett Hundley didn't get the ball out of his hands very quickly, but much of that was due to receivers not being able to get separation against defenders. Even the passes that were completed had to be near-perfect throws because of the blanket coverage that Stanford generally had on UCLA's receivers.
Hundley was sacked seven times, and was constantly on the move. He did not do a great job at evading the rush, and certainly didn't throw the ball away enough. In fact, the one time he did throw the ball away, he probably should have been called for intentional grounding.
Even with all the miscues and errors, UCLA was in position to score more points—or at least have longer drives—if there hadn't been several questionable penalties on the offensive end. Albert Cid was called for a very questionable hold on a long run by Johnathan Franklin in the 3rd quarter, and there were several such penalties throughout the game.
All that's to say, Stanford has a very good defense, but the Cardinal were helped dramatically by some poor officiating and Hundley having one of his poorer games of the year.
This week, if you're projecting based off last week, there are a few areas where UCLA had some success and might try to exploit. First, after running out of some twin tight end and two back sets in the first half and getting stopped for losses or no gain on each, UCLA went four wide for almost the entire second half, running out of those formations slightly more effectively. The goal for UCLA should be to get Stanford's excellent linebackers off the field as much as possible.
Second, UCLA really didn't make much of an effort to get the ball to Joe Fauria until very late in the game. After his one touchdown catch in the first half, he didn't see the ball again until late in the second half. With Hundley in desperate need of a target he can hit even when covered, and certainly in need of an outlet in the face of a pass rush, Fauria will likely need to be featured much more this week.
If there's one other thing we'd predict, it's this: UCLA likely will go for it from Stanford's 40 this time around, rather than punt it. Those two punts allowed Stanford to take charge of the game and dictate the style of game. If UCLA, say, converted those fourth downs and got points on those drives, it might very well have changed the complexion of the contest.
In the end, though, Stanford's defense is really very good. Even if none of the questionable penalties get called, and Hundley, say, doesn't throw his lone interception, UCLA probably wouldn't have scored more than another touchdown or so. Expecting a wildly different outcome this weekend would be foolish.
Stanford's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense
Here's where things get interesting. Not to cherry pick, but aside from two runs by Stepfan Taylor for 40+ yards, UCLA did a mostly great job of stopping the run. Those two runs were both helped by badly missed tackles by Andrew Abbott and a formation that pushed most of UCLA's defenders to within five yards of the line of scrimmage. In fact, if you eliminate those two runs, or UCLA stopped them for minimal gain, Stanford's offense actually would have had a ho-hum day against the Bruins. Generally speaking, UCLA's base 3-4 defense, without the big set of Owamagbe Odighizuwa playing outside linebacker, did a very nice job stopping Stanford's running attack, and was versatile enough to defend the pass well enough. Anthony Barr spent roughly half his snaps in coverage on tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, and aside from one iffy pass interference call, did a very good job.
Stanford lined up in a jumbo set for almost the entire second half, and was able to both run and pass out of it. Quarterback Kevin Hogan's roll outs were particularly hard to cover out of this formation because UCLA had to sell out so much against the run. He rolled out a few times in the jumbo set, and each time was able to find a tight end open.
Hogan was a little off to start the game, but settled down and managed to make some key throws down field on play action. He also showed some decent speed, gaining two key first downs on scrambles. UCLA was not able to pressure him consistently, especially in the second half when Stanford went jumbo most of the time with 8 players lined up tight on the line of scrimmage.
Second, UCLA needs to trust its base defense more. You could argue that the coaching staff went a bit too quickly to the big set with Owa lined up at outside linebacker, especially given the initial success UCLA had against the run. A 3-4, with the safeties pulled up into the box, is actually a good run defense against Stanford's running attack, because it provides a defense in depth that gives you multiple shots at tackling the running back. There will be times where it may get hit for an occasional longer run, in the eight to ten yard range, but unless there are big breakdowns in pursuit and tackling, there's little need to keep seven or eight guys so close to Stanford's offensive line.
More importantly, by staying with the base defense, UCLA has some versatility it can exploit. Stanford probably won't go jumbo the entire game. In fact, the Cardinal went four and five wide a number of times in the first half when the game was competitive. The base 3-4, with Stan McKay in for Damien Holmes and Jordan Zumwalt moved to outside backer, can be fairly effective against both the power runs of Stanford and the occasional spread formation.
Lastly, UCLA needs to find a way of getting into the back field. If Stanford runs jumbo the entire game, that'll be a tall order, but assuming they do anything with receivers split out wide, UCLA needs to key on those moments and try to get Hogan to make mistakes. It was clear on Saturday that the Bruins' game plan was to stop the run and force Hogan to beat them in the air, but when there's little pass rush, it's pretty easy for any quarterback to complete passes.
Long story short, UCLA's defense actually did a pretty credible job on Saturday. In the rain on Friday, Taylor will likely have a harder time cutting back behind the line of scrimmage, and the potential for those long runs will likely be minimized. Looking at the score, if you throw out the special teams touchdown, and Stanford's drive from the 40 after Hundley's interception, UCLA held Stanford to 21 points. If the Bruins can keep them to that number again on Friday, that could be enough.
Many people are taking from the 35-17 score that Stanford dominated UCLA in a way that really wasn't born out on the field. The Cardinal scored on a Kenny Walker fumble on special teams, and were helped considerably by penalties called on UCLA. It's rare that we'll even acknowledge officiating, but the calls clearly favored Stanford on Saturday. Additionally, UCLA's coaches clearly had a fairly conservative mindset, not rolling Hundley out, not blitzing much on defense, and not going for it on 4th down on Stanford's side of the field. We would have to expect that each of those things will change on Friday.
Of course, Stanford could also show some more wrinkles. We get the feeling, though, that Stanford showed its cards pretty extensively in that first half, and there wasn't a lot there that UCLA hadn't expected in the first place.
Factoring in the weather, we're actually with Mora on this one: hard to say it favors either team. Stanford's offensive line wasn't actually dominating UCLA's on Saturday, and a grind it out game up the middle might be tougher for them if Taylor has trouble cutting on the wet ground. On the other hand, UCLA's offense could have trouble as well, especially considering Hundley will have to be much more accurate than he was on Saturday.
What it boils down to is this: UCLA played a below average game on Saturday, and Stanford played its usual game. You have to figure that, with the Rose Bowl on the line, a different officiating crew, a more aggressive mindset from the coaching staff, and the added wrinkle of having seen much of what Stanford can do offensively and defensively, that UCLA will come out looking much better on Friday. If Stanford looks much the same as it did on Saturday, this game will likely be the tossup we were expecting on Saturday.
We expect that UCLA's offense will play marginally better than it did last Saturday, but that it will be the defense and special teams that are demonstrably improved. Given that the game last week could have easily been a one score game even with all the mistakes, we'll go with the Bruins playing more mistake-free this time around and pulling this one out.