UCLA's Offense vs. Stanford's Defense
While Stanford has come to be known for its defensive prowess in the Harbaugh/Shaw era, last year the Cardinal really turned that idea on its head, feeling a phenomenal offense along with a just OK defense. The Cardinal allowed 5.4 yards per play in 2015, which is perfectly average -- and, somewhat astonishingly, well behind UCLA's own tally of 4.9 yards per play allowed.
A huge part of Stanford's issue was an inordinate amount of injuries on the defensive line that left the Cardinal with between two and three healthy linemen for long stretches of the season. That Stanford was even able to perform as well as it did was a testament to the system Stanford has in place and the talented depth the Cardinal created at linebacker and in the secondary.
This year's iteration of the Stanford defense already looks better than last year, though perhaps not quite back to the heights of 2011 through 2014. The Cardinal is averaging 4.8 yards per play allowed, which is solidly in the top 40, and 3.6 yards per carry on the ground, which is a big step up from last year, when Stanford got gashed to the tune of 4.3 yards per carry.
Stanford is hopeful it will get junior nose tackle Harrison Phillips (6'4, 285) back for this one. Phillips suffered a knee injury in the opener against Kansas State, and it was thought immediately after that he might need surgery. That has since been ruled out, but he did miss the game against USC last week. Phillips sat out the vast majority of last year after an ACL tear, but he looked good in the first game against Kansas State, and the Cardinal hope is that he can significantly shore up the interior of the line. The playmaker of the defensive line is clearly junior defensive end Solomon Thomas (6'3, 273). He had 10.5 tackles for loss last year, and while he only has 1.5 through two games this year, he has looked much stouter against the run than he did a year ago. The other end spot will be manned by redshirt freshman Dylan Jackson (6'6, 261). You rarely see a first or second year player starting for Stanford, especially on the lines, but Jackson was impressive in the offseason getting ready for the season. The depth includes redshirt senior Luke Kaumatule (6'7, 284), who redshirted last year, and Jordan Watkins (6'5, 275), a fellow redshirt senior.
The linebacker corps is bolstered by a pair of very good outside linebackers in junior Joey Alfieri (6'3, 239) and senior Peter Kalambayi (6'3, 246). The two have already combined for five tackles for loss through the first two games, and they've both looked strong and disruptive off the edge. The inside positions are manned by senior Kevin Palma (6'2, 252) and junior Bobby Okereke (6'3, 233). This is Okereke's first year starting, but Palma started all of last season. Kalambayi is the major one to watch in the group, though, as he already has 2.5 sacks this year and Stanford isn't shy about bringing him off the edge.
In the secondary, Stanford has a pair of talented, but young, corners in junior Alijah Holder (6'2, 185) and sophomore Quenton Meeks (6'2, 192). Holder is the star of the group, and if you remember, he had a pick-six against UCLA last year. Meeks actually played as a true freshman and led the team in interceptions with three. At safety, redshirt freshman Dallas Lloyd (6'3, 215), a one-time quarterback, will get the start, and he'll play alongside sophomore Justin Reid (6'1, 198), who also got time as a true freshman a year ago. Stanford has good height in the secondary across the board, and their secondary mostly fits the big and physical theme from the rest of the Cardinal team.
UCLA's offense has been up and down so far this season. Against Texas A&M, the Bruins were stymied, with the offensive line looking like the biggest issue, as UCLA couldn't do much to handle A&M's vaunted pass rush. Against UNLV, the offense seemed to hit its stride a bit more, but then regressed a little against BYU last week, generating just 17 points with the play calling looking unimaginative at times. The common theme in all of the games has been Josh Rosen not quite looking like the player everyone was expecting to take college football by storm this year, and the receivers dropping an inordinate number of balls.
We keep waiting for both Rosen and the receivers to start looking significantly better, but it hasn't happened quite yet. Rosen looks like his issues probably stem from the change in offense, going from a spread-style attack to now a pro-style offense, with much more variation in terms of formation and plays. It'll very likely click for him at some point this year, but the question is when it happens.
The receivers are more of a puzzling issue. We weren't expecting UCLA to have great receivers this year, but we were expecting the ones UCLA does have to catch the ball significantly better than they have. Through three games, UCLA has had a handful of drops in every contest, and there's been noticeably poor effort at times, whether it's lazily running a route or not fighting back to a ball that's thrown off course a bit. Somewhat inexplicably, Theo Howard, the true freshman wideout who looked like the most talented playmaker on the team in the summer and then into fall camp, has seen very little time through three games, and the assumption is that his blocking is what is keeping him off the field. It's very nice for receivers to block, but the most important thing is catching the ball and then running with the ball, and Howard does a good job at both of those things.
The offensive line essentially is what it is: a pair of good tackles with a questionable interior sandwiched between them. If UCLA is going to be a power, downhill running attack, it looks like it might have to wait until next year, because the Bruins have not been able to generate much rushing attack up the middle this year. That's despite having a very good running back corps, including Sotonye Jamabo, Bolu Olorunfunmi, Nate Starks, Brandon Stephens, and Jalen Starks. There's no word yet if any more running backs are going to be mysteriously absent for this game, but Jamabo and fullback Ainuu Taua sat out the last one.
We actually think these units both have their weaknesses, but UCLA's offense isn't necessarily built to take advantage of Stanford's. Against USC, Stanford actually looked more vulnerable against interior runs than those off tackle or to the edge, but UCLA is just not equipped to power the ball down the throat of a defense. Stanford's defensive line doesn't fire off the ball quite as quickly as the Cardinal defensive lines of years past, but it's hard to see an offensive interior of Kenny Lacy, Scott Quessenberry, and Najee Toran taking advantage the way it would need to. Stanford's linebackers are also good in pursuit, which could make the outside runs that were UCLA's bread and butter through the first two games more of a challenge.
Stanford's secondary isn't great, but neither is UCLA's receiving corps, and Rosen has been somewhat erratic this year. If the Bruins could count on the receivers to catch the ball with a great deal more regularity than they have, and if Rosen can have his best game of the season, UCLA absolutely could dice up the Cardinal secondary, but we have no evidence that either of those things is poised to happen, so it's hard to count on it.
On the bright side, Conor McDermott and Kolton Miller should be able to handle the edge rush from Stanford's outside linebackers, and the Stanford defensive line, for once, doesn't present a monstrous size advantage over UCLA's offensive line. Rosen should have a fairly clean pocket to work from. The question is simply what he's going to do with it. Winning this side of the matchup is going to rest on Rosen making a big leap this week.