Stanford Preview

Everything points toward UCLA winning this game -- the strengths and weaknesses matching up well for UCLA on both offense and defense. But there is some funk that Stanford has over UCLA that is always good for at least a touchdown when considering point spreads...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS:

-- UCLA travels to Palo Alto Saturday to take on Stanford at 3:30 p.m. in Stanford Stadium. The game will be televised nationally by Fox Sports Net, with Barry Thompkins and Petros Papadakis calling the action.

-- UCLA is 7-0 overall, 3-0 in the Pac-10, and ranked #8 in both AP and USA Today/Coaches poll, and #6 in the BCS rankings.

-- Stanford is 4-2, and 3-1 in the Pac-10. 

-- The Cardinal started the season with a win over Navy, 41-38. They followed that up with an embarrassing loss to 1-AA UC Davis, 20-17, then lost to Oregon, at home, 44-20.  They have since righted their ship some, winning their last three Pac-10 games against Washington State (in Pullman, 24-21), at Arizona (20-16) and home against ASU (45-35).

-- UCLA leads the series, which dates back to 1925, with Stanford, 41-31-3.  The teams have split the last six meetings, with each team winning on its home field.  UCLA won last year's game in the Rose Bowl, 21-0, which was their first Pac-10 shutout in 17 years.

-- UCLA traditionally struggles with Stanford, particularly on Stanford's home field.  UCLA has lost the last three straight in Stanford Stadium, with its last win coming in 1997.  In the last 20 years, UCLA is 5-5 in Palo Alto. 

-- UCLA lost a heart-breaking - and devastating -- game in 2001 at Stanford. The Bruins were 6-0 and ranked #4 in the country before coming out flat and losing to the Cardinal, 38-28.  UCLA then lost three of its last four and finished the season unranked.

-- Stanford is coached by Walt Harris, the former Pittsburgh coach in his first season at Palo Alto. In eight seasons at Pitt, he led the Panthers to six bowl games, and a first-ever BCS bowl (the Fiesta) after the 2004 season.  A Bay Area native, Harris is 67-70 overall as a head coach, which also includes three years at Pacific. 

-- UCLA's Head Coach Karl Dorrell has posted his first seven-win season at UCLA, which guarantees him a winning season for the first time in his three years in Westwood.  He is 19-13 overall as the Bruin head coach.

-- Last week against Arizona State, the Cardinal jumped out to a 45-7 lead over the Sun Devils. ASU then scored the game's final 28 points, including 21 in the fourth quarter. The Stanford faithful were excited, thinking the Cardinal had finally put together a complete game, but then were perturbed when they couldn't finish against ASU.

-- UCLA and Stanford haven't given up the ball much this season, with the Bruins and the Cardinal #1 and #2 in the Pac-10 in turnover margin.  UCLA's 1.43 actually ranks #3 in the country.

STANFORD'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

Stanford's offense is a difficult one to nail down.

They, statistically, aren't great - second to last in rushing offense (110 yards per game) and dead last in total offense (311 yards per game).

But they've won the last three Pac-10 games, and they've done it with a revived offense. Last week against Arizona State, they put 45 points on the board, a season high.

Stanford's Trent Edwards.

While you can't say that the Cardinal offense is now a potent machine, they have been quite a bit better in the last three games, mostly thanks to its quarterback, senior Trent Edwards (6-4, 220). Edwards, as we all know, coming out of high school, was very highly regarded, but hadn't really delivered on that promise (sound familiar, Bruin fans?) until this year, and actually not until the last several games.  Having to get used to a new offensive scheme when Harris came in this season, it looked like it took Edwards a few games, but it's starting to click. He's getting rid of the ball quicker, making better decisions, and that has led him to throwing far more accurately than he was early in the season.

Harris's hybrid type of west coast offense, also, has utilized Edwards as a runner.  He's been Stanford's leading rusher a couple of times this season, with some of it coming on scrambles, but others through design.  It's definitely given the Stanford offense another dimension that's contributed to the offense's turnaround in the last three games.

Probably the other big contributing factor to Stanford's improved offense has been the development of its offensive line. It was a question mark early in the season, especially after senior center, and the anchor of the line, Brian Head, went down with an injury in the first game of the season and had to leave the team with a medical retirement.  His replacement, senior Tim Mattran (6-5, 295), has played solidly, but is a former walk-on.  They also had some poor play early at other OL positions, that led to not only poor run blocking but pass blocking, leading to Edwards getting a lot of pressure and actually getting knocked out of the Navy game. 

The line, in the last several games, though, has stabilized, and it's really buoyed the offense. A big part of that has been sophomore Allen Smith (6-4, 300) establishing himself at left tackle, replacing senior Jeff Edwards (6-6, 290) who started early in the season. They've also been getting good play from sophomore right guard Alex Fletcher (6-4, 295). 

The OL performance might have been at its worst the third game of the season against Oregon when the offense gained 64 yards on the ground and gave up five sacks.  Since then, though, they've generally kept the pressure off Edwards, and giving him time to work has made a huge difference in his effectiveness.

Edwards has been looking primarily at junior receiver Mark Bradford (6-2, 200) as his target, and Bradford has been a monster. Last week against Arizona State he had one of the best days recorded by a receiver in the Pac-10 this year when he caught 9 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns. A great athlete, Bradford is the master of getting the contested ball. Throw it up, and have a few defensive backs wrestle with him, but he has an uncanny knack for bringing it down.

After Bradford, there aren't that many prolific targets. The other starting receiver, senior Gerren Crochet (6-0, 175) has run track at Stanford and has good speed, but has questionable skills catching the ball.  The Cardinal tight end, senior Matt Traverso (6-4, 250), is a solid but unspectacular receiver.  Harris likes to throw to his running backs out of the backfield quite a bit. 

The Stanford running backs, in fact, have had a tough time this season. The projected starter going into fall camp was senior J.R. Lemon (6-1, 225) but he had hamstring issues,  missed all of fall camp and is only now returning to health, being used as a back-up the last few weeks.  Sophomore Anthony Kimble (6-1, 195) has gotten the bulk of the carries for the Cardinal this season, but is averaging just 39 yards per game. He doesn't have blazing speed, but good size and elusiveness.  He has shared carries with junior Jason Evans (6-1, 190), who has proved to be a decent back-up.  This week, though, the word is that Kimble is ailing a bit. Harris keeps very tight-lipped about injuries, so it's even uncertain what Kimble's injury is, even though it's pretty certain it has something to do with his leg. This week Kimble told reporters he'd be ready to go by Saturday, but whether he's completely healthy is a question. 

Overall, with the uncertainties with the offensive line and the running backs, Stanford's running game has really struggled.  Even when the offense has generally done better in the last couple of weeks, the running game still really struggled. Against the two worst rushing defenses in the Pac-10 besides UCLA - Arizona and Arizona State - in the last two weeks Stanford has averaged just 62 yards on the ground.  The fact that Stanford couldn't run the ball late in the game is what allowed Arizona State back in it last week.

UCLA's defense will again have a challenge on its hands, nonetheless. As everyone knows, the Bruins have struggled themselves to defend the run this season. It doesn't help that senior middle linebacker, Justin London, who played sparingly last week, is probably still not close to being healthy.  His back-up, freshman John Hale, played solidly filling in for him, but Hale was nicked up this week himself. 

Starting defensive tackle Brigham Harwell has been bothered by an ankle sprain all season, which he tweaked again this week in practice.  Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Kennth Lombard hasn't practiced much this week due to injury.

This is all after UCLA is already operating without two starting defensive linemen from the beginning of the season, Kevin Brown and Nikola Dragovic

UCLA's Trey Brown.

The brightest spot on defense for UCLA has been its pass coverage, which has overall been solid on the season. Much of that is due to sophomore corner Trey Brown stepping up and playing very well, being able to more or less shut down one of the opposition's receivers consistently.  UCLA's secondary, also, has benefitted from the fact that opposing offenses tend to run the ball excessively, trying to take advantage of UCLA's poor rushing offense, so the ball simply hasn't been thrown at them as much as it could.

Advantage: Even.  So far this has been the only week this season when we haven't given the advantage to the opposing offense. But if you'd have to lean either way, you'd probably still lean toward Stanford's offense.  UCLA's weakness defending the run is such a significant liability that defensive coordinator Larry Kerr has tried just about everything this year to make up for it, mostly relying on different blitz packages every week  to try to disrupt opposing offenses and quarterbacks.  Last week against Oregon State, it more or less worked, too, with UCLA's defense getting 5 or 6 crucial stops, enough to give the potent UCLA offense the ball and the opportunity to ice the game, which it did. 

If you had to come up with a good matchup for UCLA's defense, Stanford's offense might be it. It matches up UCLA's strength defensively - its pass coverage - against Stanford's offensive strength, throwing the ball. It also matches up its defensive weakness, its rush defense, against Stanford's offensive weakness, running the ball. It's hard to determine what's worse, UCLA giving up 222 yards per game on the ground, or Stanford only rushing for 110.  UCLA's rushing defense is 113th in the country and Stanford's rushing offense is 94th. 

UCLA's defensive line is under-manned due to injury, young and inexperienced, and  Stanford's offensive line is remarkably similar.   If you're looking for some good individual matchups, or unit matchups, to watch in this game, Stanford's offensive line against UCLA's defensive line isn't it.

A very good matchup, though, will be Mark Bradford against UCLA's secondary, when he finds himself matched up against Trey Brown, and probably double-teamed by one of UCLA's safeties.  Last week on one play Bradford was triple-teamed, went up for the ball, was hacked, and the defense was called for a pass interference, and Bradford still came down with it.

All UCLA's defense needs to do is get those 5 to 6 stops they've been getting in every UCLA win.  For those five or six series, they've played very well, as a result of Kerr's play-calling and some renewed intensity.  And when you have UCLA's offense, that's enough.  UCLA will try to utilize its blitzing schemes to take advantage of Stanford's young offensive line and pressure Edwards into bad decisions.  Early on this season, it probably was what limited Stanford's offense the most, and UCLA will try to reproduce that.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. STANFORD'S DEFENSE

Stanford's 3-4-4 defensive alignment is designed to feature its linebackers, and it works out pretty well since Stanford's defensive strength is its linebackers.

In the middle is senior Kevin Schimmelmann (6-3, 228) who leads the team in tackles and is the heart and soul of the defensive unit.  He's not spectacular, but solid, with very good speed, having come to Stanford originally as a safety. 

Cardinal's Kevin Schimmelmann.

Schimmelmann's job many times is just to tie up a blocker, which leaves the other inside linebacker position clear to make the tackle.  Junior Michael Okwo (6-0, 220) who most UCLA fans might remember as a big recruiting target for the Bruins out of high school, mans that position. Okwo, however, is nicked up, with an ankle sprain, and senior Mike Silva (6-2, 225) has stepped in the last couple of weeks and performed well. He had a sack and returned an interception for a touchdown last week. This week it looks like Silva will get the start and Okwo will back him up.

On the outside is perhaps Stanford's most talented defensive player, senior outside linebacker Jon Alston (6-1, 220).  Alston is a quick, explosive athlete that is very adept at running down ball carriers on the edge. He leads the team in tackles for loss, and is Stanford's primary threat as a pass rusher, having five on the season.

This unit is the engine for the defense, and if you can contain them, particularly Alson, you have a pretty good chance of bottling up Stanford's defense.

Before last week you might have said that Stanford's three-man defensive front wasn't much, but senior nose tackle Babatunde Oshinowo (6-2, 320) was a one-man wrecking crew last week against ASU, getting nine tackles, including four tackles for loss and three sacks.  Stanford observers also tend to like senior defensive end Julian Jenkins (6-4, 275) but this unit was hurt pretty profoundly when it lost its two projected starters at defensive end at the beginning of the season to injury.

Stanford's true defensive weakness has been its secondary, where it essentially is breaking in four new starters, having lost three seniors from last season who are all in the NFL.

When it's gone up against prolific throwing offenses, the Stanford secondary has been dismantled, first by Oregon, which had 463 yards through the air.  Last week, Arizona State threw for 402, with ASU's second-string quarterback doing most of the damage. 

Senior cornerback T.J. Rushing (5-11, 180) is considered a solid cover guy.  After that, it's iffy.  Senior  free safety David Lofton (6-4, 220) is big, but a converted wide receiver, and he's had to step in for the injured senior Trevor Hooper (6-1, 205) who is still making his way back.  The other corner, junior Nick Sanchez (6-0, 185) has had some rough games this season. 

UCLA's offense, though, comes into this game banged up a bit.  UCLA's best receiver, Marcus Everett, doesn't appear to be 100% recovered from the bruised knee he suffered last week against Oregon State. The other starting receiver, Joe Cowan, sat out some this week due to a banged up shoulder. 

UCLA's Brandon Breazell.

It looks again like a week where Marcedes Lewis will be the focal point of UCLA's throwing offense, and he hasn't disappointed any week when that's been the case. He had a huge game last week, and with Stanford's inexperienced and thin secondary, he should have another one this week.  Brandon Breazell stepped up last week with Everett on the sideline, and he could be critical in keeping Stanford's secondary honest and not triple-teaming Lewis.

Perhaps most significant is the fact that UCLA could be without its veteran center, Mike McCloskey. If so, redshirt freshman Aaron Meyer will get a huge test looking across the line at Oshinowo. 

Quite a few indicators point to UCLA quarterback Drew Olson having a very good game against Stanford. He's done very well to exploit under-manned secondaries this year, as he did last week against Oregon State, throwing for 6 touchdowns.  His efficiency in operating UCLA's passing game will again be one of the keys to the game.

Advantage: UCLA.  It's how you like to see it - UCLA's offensive strength matched up against the defense's weakness. That is, UCLA's passing game against Stanford's passing defense.   UCLA is averaging 272 yards per game through the air, and Stanford is giving up 281, so it's pretty safe to assume UCLA will get its quota passing the ball.

Where UCLA's offense could really get the edge to completely dominate the game is if it owns the line of scrimmage against Stanford's defense, particularly in its running game.  Stanford has shown some sturdiness against the run at times this year, but their front line is thin and tends to get worn down late in the game, like it did last week against ASU. UCLA, on the contrary, loves to wear down defensive lines so it can own the game in the second half.  And it's safe to say that Stanford was owned last week by ASU in the fourth quarter, when UCLA's offense has commonly been at its best.  Watch for the usual UCLA offensive MO, with Maurice Drew and the running game getting just modest gains in the first half and then breaking bigger runs in the second. 

Stanford generally has good special teams play. Last week against ASU it really impacted the game when the Cardinal blocked two punts.  UCLA, of course, has the best punt returner in the nation in Drew, and he's always good for a momentum-switching return sometime during the game.

Prediction:

In the last several weeks, you could have made a case that UCLA's opponents could very well have beaten the Bruins.

This week against the Cardinal, it's tough to make that case.

So, that's why it's so scary. 

UCLA's weakness on defenses go directly head-to-head against Stanford's weakness on defense. Then, UCLA's strength on offense go head-to-head against Stanford's weakness.

Again, everything indicates UCLA should win this game, and fairly easily.

But it's difficult to factor in the strange funk Stanford seems to have over UCLA, especially in Stanford Stadium. Some of the UCLA players this week speculated that the stadium is so relatively quiet, it lulls you to sleep while Stanford is used to it and comes to play. 

Whatever the phenomenon is, it is real. And it's worth at least a touchdown when you're discussing point spreads.

But you have to expect that UCLA's offense will again own the game, and UCLA's defense will limit Stanford's offense just enough that they won't be able to keep up with UCLA's scoring.

UCLA 45
Stanford  27


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