Throughout the day, actually, Stanford's offensive coaches called a bit of a peculiar game. There were several Wildcat formations, several five wide receiver looks, and two times in the red zone that David Shaw had to call timeout to change a play call. In many ways, it was an uncharacteristically disorganized performance for the Cardinal offense, with at least three procedure penalties called against offensive linemen who struggled in the Utah road environment.
Looking a little closer, Stanford's offense is a fair bit different from the one that UCLA faced twice toward the end of last year. Without departed tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, the Cardinal hasn't been able to find an adequate replacement among several candidates for the role. One of the few promising possibilities, sophomore Luke Kaumataule (6'7, 267), was actually just switched to defensive end to compensate for some injuries along the line. Those currently in the tight end depth chart account for just one catch on the season.
In many ways, that inability to throw the ball to the tight ends has forced Stanford into a few more spread looks—at least when they pass the ball. Much more than last year, junior Kevin Hogan (6'4, 228) is lining up in the shotgun in situations with three or more wide receivers. It's understandable, too, because he has two very good targets in junior receiver Devon Cajuste (6'4, 228) and junior receiver Ty Montgomery (6'2, 215). Cajuste was the big surprise through the first chunk of the season, but Montgomery has come on very strong through the last couple of games, with an impact both offensively and on special teams. Montgomery is fast and physical, with the ability to take short passes a very long way. He can be particularly devastating on screen passes, with a compact kind of running style that almost makes him look like a running back.
Still, there are significant power elements to Stanford's offense, because the strength of the team, at least for this year, remains the offensive line. The unit is led by senior left guard David Yankey (6'5, 313), who has seemingly been starting for Stanford for the last seven years. Yankey is on every award watch list, and has been one of the true maulers on the interior for the Cardinal. Last year, Yankey started at left tackle, but has made the transition back to guard seemingly flawlessly. At center, redshirt senior Khalil Wilkes (6'3, 286) gets the nod, after starting last year at left guard, and at right guard, Stanford returns redshirt senior Kevin Danser (6'6, 296), who started all 14 games last year at the position. It's a very good interior line, easily the best that UCLA has faced this year. At left tackle, Stanford has talent, if some inexperience, in sophomore Andrus Peat (6'7, 312). Peat has bloodlines, though, with a father who played for the Los Angeles Raiders. He's the prototypical big, long-armed left tackle. On the right side, senior Cameron Fleming (6'6, 318) is another three year starter who's on several preseason lists. In other words, there isn't a true weak spot on the offensive line.
|Tailback Tyler Gaffney.|
Hogan, in his second year as a starter, is putting together a decent statistical season that masks some deficiencies. He's thrown 12 touchdowns against just four interceptions, but many of those picks have come in pretty unforced situations. He's also had issues with fumbles, particularly on scrambles where he hasn't demonstrated a great feel for getting rid of the ball. Most importantly, he just hasn't shown the accuracy of a year ago. Against Utah, there were several red zone throws that were far off where they should have been thrown. It seems, again, that this is an area that's been affected a good deal by the loss of those two big tight ends.
At running back, Tyler Gaffney has gotten the majority of the work, and he's actually done a credible Stepfan Taylor impression, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Against Utah, he was able to generate important yards after contact, driving the pile with his bulk. His combination of size and speed is not something UCLA has dealt with this year. He'll be spelled by senior Anthony Wilkerson (6'1, 215), who is also a big back with speed who can push the pile.
The Cardinal just came off two of its more anemic offensive performances of the year, but UCLA's defense is coming off arguably its best defensive performance of the last two years. Against California's prolific offense last week, the Bruins were largely able to shut down Cal's strengths from the opening snap, limiting the Bears to ten points and under 400 yards of total offense.
It was a breakout game for UCLA's secondary. Led by safety Randall Goforth, who followed up his excellent game against Utah with another interception against Cal, the secondary held down Cal's potent wide receivers for much of the game. Fabian Moreau and Ishmael Adams both did effective jobs blanketing Cal's receivers, while Anthony Jefferson was useful in run support as well as in the passing game. For a unit that was expected to be a huge question mark heading into the season, the defensive backs have turned into a potential strength for the team this year.
The linebackers, led by the massively talented senior Anthony Barr and the possibly more massively talented true freshman Myles Jack, have been very good this entire season, and turned in another good performance against Cal. Barr, after not recording a sack in his first two games, has come on strong in that department through the last three and is now climbing the leaderboard in the conference. He's leading the league in tackles for loss, and hasn't shown that he's slowing down. It's shocking to say, but Jack might be right there with Barr in terms of his value to the defense. Jack, unlike Barr, sometimes splits out to cover receivers and can do that just as well as he rushes the passer. He's currently second in the Pac-12 in passes defended per game, while also being a tackling machine as well as an effective pass rusher. Between the two outside backers, Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks have been very effective this year ranging between the sidelines while providing run support up the middle.
|Myles Jack and Anthony Barr.|
Many thought coming into the year that the front seven would be the strength for UCLA's defense, but so far this year, it has been seemingly the back eight that has been the strength. It's not to say, though, that the defensive line hasn't been good. In many instances, the front three have been asked to create pockets against the running quarterbacks that UCLA has faced so far this year, rather than penetrate and open running lanes. Still, there is a sense that the defensive linemen must do a better job of generating push on the interior, or at least consistently holding ground, as the team heads into the meat of Pac-12 play.
We should put the word "slight" in front of that "Advantage" word, since there are some reasons why this could be a tough matchup for UCLA. It does seem, though, that teams have begun to figure out what Stanford likes to do offensively this year. Washington and, to a much greater extent, Utah did a nice job of limiting the Cardinal's running game and forcing Hogan to throw by creating a pocket and not over penetrating. The Utes, after blitzing for much of the first quarter, backed off considerably in the final three quarters, which limited Stanford's effectiveness as Hogan was asked to throw more from inside the pocket.
We could easily see UCLA opting for a similar game plan, since its one they have used this year already, but we'd have to imagine the Stanford coaching staff will start to adapt by dropping back to more of its power running than it used against Utah. There isn't a foolproof way to stop Stanford's power runs, and UCLA probably doesn't have the meat on the defensive line this year to succeed the way the Bruins partially did last year, with Owamagbe Odighizuwa coming in as an outside linebacker at times.
The thing is, Stanford really doesn't have the threat of the pass out of those jumbo formations anymore. Without those pass-catching tight ends, the Stanford offense becomes very one-dimensional when it goes to seven or eight on the offensive line, which allows an Anthony Barr, say, to cheat up against the line of scrimmage rather than spend as much time in coverage as he did last year. It can't be overlooked, though, that Stanford's offensive line is a very good one. It's the biggest and best offensive line UCLA has faced this year, one that could prove a very difficult test for a line that hasn't quite been able to replace the production from Datone Jones and Odighizuwa this year.
Still, we expect that UCLA's 3-4, particularly with its speed on the edge and physicality on the interior at linebacker, will be able to do enough of a job stopping the run that Stanford will be forced to throw at points (in other words, we wouldn't expect the Cardinal to rattle off six yards a pop). While we're not ready to anoint UCLA's secondary as the best in the last ten years, it's getting to be pretty clear that it's a better unit than the one that the Bruins trotted out last year. Against Stanford's receivers, who are good but few, we expect that UCLA's defensive backs will be up to the task of limiting them.