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Game Week: Stanford's O vs. UCLA's D

Oct. 13 -- UCLA is facing probably the best offense it's faced this season on the road in Palo Alto this week...

Stanford’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense

The leaves change, children get older, and Pete Carroll’s former assistants get fired by USC, but one thing that hasn’t changed in quite a long time is Stanford’s offense. It’s the same pro-style behemoth it’s been for almost the last decade, with a powerful offensive line, good running backs, an efficient, effective quarterback, and a pervasive desire to pound defenses until they collapse under a deluge of power runs and play-action passes.

Of course, the season didn’t start out quite that way for Stanford. The offense looked particularly inept through the first six quarters of the season, scoring just six points against Northwestern in a loss on opening weekend and then just ten points in the first half against UCF. Since then, though, Stanford’s offense has operated at an elite level, scoring 21 second half points against UCF, putting up 41 on USC, 42 on Oregon State, and then blasting Arizona for 55 last week.

Points, as always, don’t tell the full tale. How’s this: Stanford is averaging 6.6 yards per play this year (16th best in the country), but 7.3 yards per play in the last three games (6th best in that stretch of time). The rushing offense has been good, averaging five yards per carry (5.8 in the last three games), but the passing offense has been even better. Stanford is averaging an absurd 9.6 yards per pass attempt this season (6th best in the country), and 11.4 yards per pass attempt in the last three games, which is the 3rd best mark in the country, just two spots behind Baylor.

There isn’t an obvious weakness in the offensive attack. Across the board, Stanford is full of good, solid players at every position, with great size and strength that creates mismatches at many levels.

The most obvious improvement, though, has been the play of redshirt senior quarterback Kevin Hogan (6’4, 218). Hogan hasn’t been a bad quarterback over his career at Stanford, but he has been marked by inconsistency. UCLA fans wouldn’t know it, of course, since he has historically reserved his best performances for the Bruins — in his career he has completed 65 of 88 passes against UCLA (74%) for 5 touchdowns and 1 interception, and has also rushed for 138 yards on 27 carries (5.1 yards per carry) with a touchdown. His completion percentage and yards per rush against the Bruins are both significantly higher than his career numbers. This year, for the first time, he has begun playing every game like he’s playing UCLA. In the last four games, he has completed 72% of his passes for nine touchdowns and just one interception, despite being a bit hobbled by an ankle sprain. He’s using his eyes particularly well to look off coverage, and has shown tremendous patience in the pocket. It’s been the most impressive stretch of his career.

Much of the reason for that is an offensive line that has improved significantly from a year ago, when it was breaking in several new starters. The group has protected Hogan better than a year ago (they’ve given up seven sacks through five games, and he seems to be hurried much less than last season). Senior left tackle Kyle Murphy (6’7, 301) has been impressive so far this year, using his length and strength to not only protect Hogan but also be a bit of a bully in the run game. Next to him, senior left guard Joshua Garnett (6’5, 321) is just a massive dude who is an absolute force in the run game. Expect Stanford to run often behind those two, as they are probably the two best run blockers in the unit. At center, senior Graham Shuler (6’4, 285) returns for his second year as a starter, and he and senior right guard Johnny Caspers (6’4, 300) have been very solid in the run game as well. If there’s a slight weak link, it’s sophomore right tackle Casey Tucker (6’6, 300), the lone new starter in the group. Murphy switched to left tackle to take over for Andrus Peat (who departed for the NFL), which opened up the right tackle job for Tucker. He hasn’t been horrible, but he has been susceptible to some pass rushers, and got burned a couple of times against Arizona.

RB Christian McCaffrey (USA Today)

The running game has been strong this year, and Stanford has a group of four talented players it’ll likely use. The key name is obviously sophomore Christian McCaffrey (6’0, 201). McCaffrey bulked up a little bit in the offseason, sacrificing a little bit of speed for the ability to play with a little bit more power between the tackles, and it appears to have paid off. He’s averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and is also the team’s leading receiver with 15 catches for 168 yards this season. He isn’t quite the power back Stanford has typically enjoyed in the past, but he’s strong enough to break through arm tackles, and boasts a pretty good burst through the line of scrimmage. The “power back” of the group is redshirt senior Remound Wright (5’9, 205). He’s not a traditionally sized power back, but he runs with a real forward lean and plenty of strength. Stanford typically likes to use him sparingly throughout the game, but will turn to him often at the goal line. So far this year, he has seven of Stanford’s 12 touchdowns on the ground. Senior Barry Sanders (5’10, 198) has provided some big play ability this year, with a long touchdown in each of Stanford’s last two games. The last in the group is the wildcard, true freshman Bryce Love (5’10, 184). Love is the fastest player in the group, and Stanford has tried to get him the ball in multiple ways. He has run the ball 10 times this year on a variety of different types of runs (sweeps, designed carries, and Wildcat plays) for a total of 56 yards, and has also caught six balls for 156 yards a touchdown. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Stanford try to get him the ball four or five times on Thursday.

It’s a typical Stanford offense from a receiving perspective. The Cardinal works the ball around to a variety of running backs, tight ends, and big receivers, and most of them are very sure-handed. Senior Michael Rector (6’1, 189) is the big play threat in the group, with the most speed among the starters and great ability to make contested catches. He is averaging almost 20 yards per catch this year on his 12 catches, and also has three touchdowns. At 6’1, though, he’s actually the smallest of the main Stanford receivers. Redshirt senior Devon Cajuste (6’4, 227) is a matchup nightmare for most teams, with the size to catch balls over most defensive backs and pretty good speed for his size. Junior tight end Austin Hooper (6’4, 248) is a definite pass-catching threat while also being an effective run blocker. Stanford loves to go to him off of play-action, and he’s another matchup issue for most teams. As if that weren’t enough, Stanford also has junior Francis Owusu (6’3, 212), sophomore tight end Dalton Schultz (6’6, 233), and redshirt senior Rollins Stallworth (6’4, 210) who can all present sizable matchup problems for a defense. It’s probably the biggest, tallest receiving corps in the Pac-12, and perhaps even the country. Heck, aside from Rector, the smallest guy in the bunch is true freshman Trent Irwin (6’2, 199) who has quickly become one of Hogan’s reliable targets on third down.

So, UCLA’s defense definitely has a problem on its hands on Thursday.

The Bruins, as we’ve documented in recent weeks, have been severely hampered by injuries. UCLA has lost a key starter for the season at every level of the defense (DT Eddie Vanderdoes, LB Myles Jack, and CB Fabian Moreau). UCLA was also without the services of starting linebacker Jayon Brown and starting cornerback Marcus Rios two weeks ago when the Bruins lost to ASU (both of whom should be back this week). The losses have caused UCLA to have to mix and match on defense, with Randall Goforth switching to corner, Tahaan Goodman starting at safety, and players like Isaako Savaiinaea, Eli Ankou, and Matt Dickerson discovering bigger roles.

Probably the highlight for the defense in recent weeks has been the play of Savaiinaea. Despite bouncing around between several different positions last season, he has filled in at Mike linebacker through the last couple of games and has played particularly well. He’s the surest tackler outside of the defensive line, for sure. Linebacker play in general, though, has been spotty, with Kenny Young really struggling so far this season, and that has helped lead to some big rushing days for opposing offenses.
Ken Clark (Steve Cheng, BRO)

The defensive line has played relatively well, given the loss of Vanderdoes. Eli Ankou has been better than most probably would have expected, and star nose tackle Kenneth Clark has picked up the slack quite a bit. He almost single-handedly stopped a couple of ASU drives in the last game.

The secondary has been tasked with playing off coverage most of the year, and the results have been mixed. Against ASU, the secondary allowed a couple of easy conversions when they were playing off coverage. Generally, though, despite the loss of Moreau and the temporary loss of Rios, the secondary hasn’t been noticeably bad.

ADVANTAGE: Stanford

This is a dreadful matchup for UCLA, and for most teams at this point. Stanford’s offense is operating with machine-like efficiency, especially in recent weeks, and UCLA’s defense being relatively depleted makes this a really tough one for the Bruins. If you factor in that UCLA has been unable to do much against this Stanford offense in the last three years, this becomes an even worse matchup.

UCLA will have to attempt some different things to match up against Stanford’s size and strength. On the outside, we’d really like to see UCLA press the receivers more. Stanford has size, but doesn’t have a great deal of speed on the outside, so there’s a chance that UCLA could make it tough for Hogan to throw to open targets if the corners play up on the receivers. It’s worth a shot, at any rate, because if the Bruins play off of Stanford’s receiver, Hogan will be more than willing to throw underneath the coverage all game and generate six and seven yards gains at a time.

We’d like to see UCLA mix it up a little bit more up front. So far this season, we haven’t seen many elaborate stunts or blitzes, and this might be the game to go for it. If UCLA attempts to go with the three or four-man rush for most of the game, Hogan will have all the time in the world to throw to his big targets, and that’s not a formula for success. If ever there was a game to take some risks, it’d be this one, since a bend-but-don’t-break game plan almost plays directly into methodical Stanford’s hands.

Even with a high-risk/high-reward strategy, though, this is going to be the significantly tougher side of the matchup for the Bruins. If Vanderdoes were healthy, we’d feel better about UCLA’s ability to match up against the run, but Ankou, despite his improvement, isn’t that same kind of force against the run. UCLA will probably need to load up the box at times, and that could create some good opportunities for Hogan off of play-action. UCLA’s tackling hasn’t been great this year, and it’ll need to be perfect against Stanford’s group of running backs.

We just don’t see a real way that UCLA wins this side of the matchup, outside of Hogan having an inexplicably horrible game, or David Shaw having one of his weird games where he suddenly gets infatuated with the Wildcat in the red zone. Those two things could absolutely happen, but we’re not betting on it.

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