Stanford Stands in the Way

NOV. 29 -- With everything poised for UCLA to take the next step, UCLA can't get past Stanford again, in what is the most disappointing loss of the Jim Mora era...

UCLA lost to Stanford Friday, 31-10, in what was probably the most disappointing loss of the Jim Mora era.

The Bruins had gotten to the front of the velvet ropes but then the bouncer turned them down flat.

The name “UCLA” just wasn’t on his list.

It’s really the next step for the UCLA program. Mora has definitely turned it around and made some considerable advances – winning at least 9 games a season for three years, and beating USC three years in a row. If someone had told you three years ago that would be where the program was in three years most Bruin fans would have been ecstatic – just because where we all had come from was so dismal.

But as is human nature, you always want more. And the coaching staff would readily tell you themselves – they want more, too.

The next step, to get into the National Relevancy Club, is to win the Pac-12, and the bouncers at the door are Oregon and Stanford. UCLA’s just not going to take the next step without overcoming Oreford. Mora is 0-6 against Oreford, and his Bruins haven’t really looked ready to take that step – up until the lead-up to this game. UCLA had it rolling, was 9-2 and Stanford looked ripe for the picking at 6-5. It was probably the only Oreford game in which UCLA was favored going in. Five other teams had actually beaten the Cardinal, so that would indicate that UCLA, with probably the second-most talent in the conference, would finally get a win against Stanford, and get at least one of the Oregon/Stanford monkeys off its back.

If there was ever an opportunity for UCLA to take down Stanford, this was it.

So, what happened?

As with anything, it was definitely a combination of factors. But overall, it was mostly that UCLA just isn’t ready yet to beat Stanford, regardless of whether Stanford is 6-5 or not.

Now, Stanford is probably better than its record indicates. It lost three of its games by a total of 9 points, and lost all five of its games to then-ranked teams. So, there’s that.

But this was the year that Stanford was the most vulnerable, and not playing for much in its last regular-season game, so the less-motivated in any of the last three years.

UCLA looked a bit flat, perhaps it was a hangover from such a big, emotional win over rival USC just 6 days before. Or maybe too much Tryptofan. (And by the way, no matter what informal guidelines the schedulers use, and preferences the Trojans dictate, the UCLA/USC game should always been the last game of the season – every season.)

No matter that Mora said UCLA needs to get older, bigger and stronger to beat Stanford, USC beat Stanford, and they’re not very old, big or strong, if last week’s game is any evidence.

One big factor, it clearly appears, is that UCLA, with its schemes, just doesn’t match up well against Stanford, on either side of the ball.

The momentum tide in this game started to go firmly in Stanford’s favor in the first half when UCLA’s defense couldn’t stop the Cardinal offense, despite Stanford handing them favors with five penalties. There were many defensive factors that contributed but, really, it was a matter that UCLA couldn’t mount an effective pass rush. Stanford used max protection quite often, and even at times retained seven blockers, and that’s tough to out-man. But this season other teams have, mostly because other defenses had personnel that could beat their Stanford blocker in a one-on-one match-up. UCLA didn’t, and when it lost its most recently best pass rusher, Deon Hollins, in the second quarter, it really snowballed. Stanford’s quarterback Kevin Hogan looked like friggin’ Troy Aikman, but he looked like that because he had so much time to look like that. UCLA didn’t even touch Hogan, and that enabled him to start the game 13-of-13. Yes, Stanford had many blockers in pass pro, but there were one-on-one match-ups that UCLA just never won. And then, when it was clear that UCLA’s lack of a pass rush was perhaps the most defining factor of the Stanford offense dominating the UCLA defense, the UCLA coaches didn’t attempt enough to generate more pressure. They stunted some, which didn’t work, Stanford picking it up perfectly, but we didn’t see nearly as many safety or corner blitzes. It was a situation that called for extremes, perhaps sending the entire house at times, or attempting some really unconventional blitzes. But UCLA, instead, went to more a preventive defense, with safety Jaleel Wadood backing up to 30 yards behind the box and the corners not pressing nearly as much.

Perhaps it was a matter of hubris that UCLA thought, after it garnered six sacks against USC, it actually had a good pass rush with just sending four. The thing is, though, most of the sacks in the USC game were coverage sacks, and most of the pressure USC quarterback Cody Kessler felt was because he couldn’t find an open receiver. Remember, really, before that, UCLA hadn’t been very effective at mounting a pass rush this season, but it seemed maybe that it convinced itself, after being effective rushing four against a young, inexperienced USC offensive line, that it could do the same against Stanford.

Eddie Vanderdoes (Steve Cheng, BRO).
There are two big match-ups in college football that really impact the game the most now, with the game moving so much toward the spread, and it’s pretty simple: Can the opposing team protect its quarterback and can you protect yours. We’ve seen what protecting Hundley has done for this UCLA team – basically turned around the season. We’ve seen what not getting a pass rush against opponents also did for this team – and what it did against USC when you did.

Stanford, though, inherently presents a problem for UCLA’s defensive scheme. UCLA’s D is designed to stop college football’s spread offenses, and Stanford is a completely different animal. In this game, specifically, what it did was force UCLA to utilize its base 3-4 defense quite a bit, to try to counter Stanford’s heavy formation, and UCLA’s defense did that pretty well, actually. The problem, though, was Stanford then throwing against it. It wasn’t just Hogan having all that time to throw, but throwing against UCLA’s 3-4 put freshman linebacker Kenny Young into pass coverage, and Stanford exploited it early.

The equalizing factor on defense, when you don’t necessarily have a scheme designed to stop the opposing scheme, is a pass rush, and UCLA should have done whatever it needed to do to generate one.

Offensively, UCLA started out strong, and looked like it was operating downhill in the first quarter. The offensive line was pushing Stanford back a few yards on running plays, and Brett Hundley looked good, making some good throws and decisions while standing in the pocket. The drop that Devin Fuller made in the second quarter at about the four-yard line on a third down was one of the best decisions and throws of Hundley’s career. But as the pass protection broke down, so did Hundley. It was interesting – UCLA’s offensive line could get a push with its running game, but got pushed back in pass protection. The more pressure Hundley felt the more he slipped into panicky Brett. You combine that with what clearly looked like a mindset to not run – and Stanford spying him very well – and the Cardinal effectively shut down Hundley.

With the pocket breaking down fairly quickly, Stanford put more pressure on UCLA’s receivers, and generally took away UCLA’s primary one, forcing Hundley to make a read, under pressure, and that just isn’t his strength at this time in his career. UCLA had found success early in routes over the middle, with a couple of nice ones to Thomas Duarte, one for the initial touchdown, but Stanford adjusted, and tightened up its interior zone while allowing UCLA to go to its horizontal game with bubbles to Devin Fuller. And UCLA obliged. We have to say, we really don’t get how enamored UCLA is with Fuller. He is clearly not the best on those bubble screens, but UCLA is relentless going to him on it, while the team’s best receiver Jordan Payton, didn’t touch the ball until the fourth quarter. Stanford was fine with allowing UCLA to go to Fuller on that play. When UCLA, though, did look down field, there were actually receivers open over the middle, Payton in fact, but Hundley just couldn’t see them.

It was very well played by Stanford.

If we had to second-guess, it’d be this: it did seem that, when UCLA was clearly getting a push from its offensive line in its running game, and Paul Perkins was running like a stud, and Stanford was blowing back UCLA’s offensive line in pass protection, there’s a clear option – and that would be to run the ball. Perkins finished with 116 yards on 17 carries (6.8 yards per carry) and that wasn’t enough utilization of him. UCLA’s running backs only carried the ball 19 times, and there was probably only one zone option in which Hundley ran the ball. UCLA thought going into the game it could throw against Stanford and probably not run, and that’s understandable, given Stanford’s defense. But the game itself was giving you the opposite data, and the game plan needed to adjust accordingly.

Paul Perkins (Steve Cheng, BRO).
After the first half, UCLA was reeling a bit, and needed to get back the momentum in the second half. It started the second half with the ball, and one of the worst decisions of the game was, with Perkins and the running game being the only true offensive advantage at that time, Nate Starks was the tailback for the first series of the second half. It didn’t seem like Perkins was hurt, but it was probably just a pre-designated sub – which should have been scrapped. It was at a time when UCLA needed to get back in the game, and it needed its horse in there to do it. After getting one first down, on first and 10, Starks took an inside handoff, missed the hole and ran into his blocker for a loss of a yard. When you’re now playing the short game, like UCLA was at that time, trying to give Hundley throws he could make, a second-and-11 is almost insurmountable. You, of course, can’t attribute the entire loss to Starks’ run, but not having Perkins in for that critical series was a considerable mistake. Going five-and-out greatly contributed to Stanford continuing to roll.

All in all, Stanford out-schemed UCLA pretty clearly. Not only is what Stanford does difficult for UCLA to counter, Stanford’s actual game plan for Friday was pretty brilliant, mostly because it worked on about all fronts. But also because Stanford looked like it made some in-game, effective adjustments. It realized UCLA was scheming to stuff the run and then realized the Bruins couldn’t mount a pass rush and Hogan was looking like he was having the best day of his career, so the Cardinal offensive game plan adjusted.

In the overview, though, beyond just in-game adjustments, if you take UCLA’s body of work over Stanford in the last three years as a whole, it’s very evident that the UCLA coaches need to find a way to match up better against what Stanford does. Much of it depends on a specific game plan for a specific game, of course, and even for specific personnel match-ups. But there plainly, now, is enough evidence to support that UCLA’s schemes don’t match up well against Stanford’s schemes, even when it had its best chance, in terms of talent on the field and intangibles, like Friday.

If you can’t beat Stanford when it’s 6-5 and you’re 9-2 and playing to get into the Pac-12 Championship and possibly the College Football Playoffs, you need to reassess what you do against Stanford.

It, again, was the most disappointing loss of the Mora era. It seemed this time, this team, and with some recent success in out-scheming opponents and so much riding on the game, it was the moment UCLA would overcome Stanford.

It’s been three years of the Mora era and, again, you have to be grateful for where he’s taken the program. It’s completely been re-conceived and re-formed. It definitely has policies in place of a winning program. The culture is in place. Mora is a good coach and a great leader. He has a good staff, and they’re recruiting very well. They have a great deal to sell – that of a future with tremendous upside, with a level of talent coming into the program that UCLA hasn’t had in a very long time.

So really, so much right now about the UCLA football program is great.

The loss is not about some BBS, or some UCLA football curse. A writer in the press box came up to me after the game and said, “It’s just so UCLA.” I thought about it, and realized, well, no, it’s not. That’s naïve and almost bordering on superstitious, just someone trying to find an artificial storyline.

This loss doesn’t have anything to do with something inherent to UCLA, because Mora isn’t typical of UCLA’s checkered past and his program isn’t.

It’s really just about the program taking the next step forward, and that next step is beating Stanford.

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