-- The UCLA Bruins travel to Palo Alto to begin their 89th season of college football this Saturday, taking on the Stanford Cardinal.
-- Kick-off is 12:30, and the game will be televised by FSN Prime Ticket in Los Angeles and Fox Sports Net throughout the nation. Calling the game will be Matt Devlin, Warren Moon and Michael Eaves.
-- UCLA is coming off a season where it went 7-6 overall and 5-4 in the Pac-10. It finished the season on the big 13-9 upset of USC, only to have that momentum and good will dashed when it dropped the Emerald Bowl to Florida State, 44-27.
-- Stanford is coming off what could arguably be called its worst season in its history, where it set a school record for losses. It went 1-11 on the season and 1-8 in the Pac-10 (beating Washington).
-- It is the 78th meeting in football between the two schools, with UCLA holding an edge on the all-time series, 43-31-3, which dates back to 1925.
-- The Bruins beat Stanford last year, 31-0, at the Rose Bowl, and also shut out the Cardinal in the 2004 meeting in Pasadena. In 2005, the Bruins rallied for a 30-27 win in overtime after trailing 24-3. Before that, UCLA had lost the previous three games in Palo Alto, with UCLA being 18-18-2 in games played at Stanford.
-- UCLA's Karl Dorrell is in his fifth year as the Bruins' head coach, with an overall record of 29-21 in four years. This season is considered the big year for Dorrell's program, with 22 returning starters and 25 seniors on the team - players that he recruited.
-- The Bruins are ranked, for the first time, in the top 25 preseason polls while under Dorrell. They are #14 in the AP poll and #17 in the USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll.
-- Stanford hired a new coach, 43-year-old Jim Harbaugh, who came to The Farm from the University of San Diego. Harbaugh came to Stanford with a history of a winner, whether it was as a quarterback at Michigan, as "Captain Comeback" during his 15-year NFL career, or at the University of San Diego where he went 29-6.
-- Harbaugh has already made some headlines for his eccentric personality. He is Mr. Energetic, doing push-ups before practice alongside the players as they stretch, and being rather blunt in his opinions publicly. He said last spring he expected USC's Pete Carroll to go to the NFL and then this fall said USC "may be the greatest team in the history of college football."
-- Harbaugh is Stanford's
third coach in the last six years, succeeding Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. The
Cardinal is 16-40 over the five years of those two coaches.
-- Stanford Stadium, built in 1921, was replaced last season, with a new capacity of 50,000 (down from 85,000). The stadium is now considered one of the best in the conference, but it didn't help the Cardinal last year, when they lost all five home games by a combined score of 165-33.
-- Stanford has 17 starters back, which might be a dubious fact since it's from a team that went 1-11.
-- Harbaugh has stated that he plans to put his best athletes on the field any way he can, even if that means converting players from one position to another.
-- Harbaugh has maintained since February that he intends to play 10 true freshmen this season among the 19 he signed. Having come through fall camp, however, most Cardinal watchers are unsure who are the 10.
It's projected to be 86 degrees in Palo Alto Saturday.
STANFORD OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
Harbaugh has a big task in front of him - trying to overhaul an offense that was second-to-last in scoring in the NCAA, scoring just 10.6 points her game.
Admittedly, Stanford's offense wasn't really that bad since it was beset with injuries last season.
But they weren't very good either, even if healthy.
The new head coach has put in a west coast, pro-style offense similar to UCLA's, which presents a few issues.
First, since it's a new offense, and a complicated one, there are going to be some snags in executing it. Secondly, you need the personnel to execute it, and there are some valid questions whether Harbaugh has that.
It sounds strikingly familiar to Karl Dorrell's first year at UCLA, and his first-year offense. UCLA probably had better personnel, but you can probably expect Stanford's offense to be run far more efficiently under new offensive coordinator David Shaw, who came to The Farm with Harbaugh from USD, where he helped coach the Toreros as the top-ranked offense in Division 1-AA.
What also sounds familiar is how Stanford's defense, for the most part, dominated Stanford's offense throughout fall camp, with many observers believing that the offense is a work in progress and probably not ready for primetime.
It can't be good, then, for the Stanford offense, that in its first game it faces what is easily one of the best returning defenses in the nation in the Bruins.
Cardinal receiver Mark Bradford.
Stanford does have some developments it's pinning some hopes on, however. Its wide receivers group is the strength of the offense and have the potential to be among the handful of best in the conference. The issue is staying healthy. The headliner is Mark Bradford (SR, 6-2, 215), who had a great season in 2005 and then tore a ligament and broke a bone in his foot in the second game of 2006 and had to sit out the rest of the season. Recently he's been nursing tendonitis and it was unsure if he'd play, but he's practiced in the last few days and insists he's playing. Bradford is a big, strong possession receiver that is tough to bring down once he turns up field. The other guy who also fits that description is Evan Moore (SR, 6-7, 236), who is essentially a slimmed-down tight end playing receiver. He's missed 13 games in the last two years due to injury but is apparently healthy now. In the void created by injuries last season, Richard Sherman (SO, 6-3, 195) stepped in and had a good season as a true freshman, finishing with 34 catches for 581 yards. Sherman is a long, good athlete.
Cardinal fans are also hoping that quarterback T.C. Ostrander (SR, 6-3, 215) can step into the offense and pick it up quickly. Ostrander is beginning his first year as a full-time starter, having backed up departed Trent Edwards for his entire career, after starting the final five games of last season. Ostrander is smart and throws a decent ball, and program watches say he's picked up Harbaugh's new offense quickly.
In the backfield are tailbacks Anthony Kimble (JR, 6-1, 210) and Toby Gerhart (SO, 6-1, 226), who are similar types of runners, mostly tackle-to-tackle, straight-ahead sorts. Both will get probably an equal amount of carries. The Cardinal also has Tyrone McGraw (R-FR, 5-9, 185) that it could use as a change of pace. McGraw is the scat-back type who will try to give Stanford an outside threat, but McGraw has had some health issues this fall himself.
Much like UCLA, the fullback position has been an issue as a result of injury. Projected starting fullback, Emeka Nnoli, who would have been a fifth-year senior, was forced to retire on August 12th due to a long-time hip injury. Another fullback has diabetes and hasn't practiced, so the starter's job has been handed to true freshman Owen Marecic (FR, 6-1, 235). Marecic proably won't do much besides block, and might not be in the game much, with Stanford electing to go to a two tight-end formation instead.
The tight ends, actually, are just serviceable. Jim Dray (SO, 6-5, 255) is a big guy and considered a good blocker and an average receiver. His back-up, Ben Ladner (SO, 6-3, 250) is thought to be more of the receiver, with good quickness for his size. Expect to see both in the game at the same time frequently.
Defensive tackle Brigham Harwell.
Stanford's offensive line, many feel, is the key to its season. It returns three starters, but again, that's from a team that went 1-11. But generally, Stanford is hoping to get solid production out of its offensive line since it does have experienced veterans. Allen Smith, the left tackle (JR, 6-4, 298) is the one many feel is poised to have a break-out season. He's a two-year starter and has really matured. He'll get a big test, lining up across from UCLA's All-American defensive end Bruce Davis for most of the game.
Tim Mattran (SR, 6-5, 298) is a veteran who anchors the middle at center. He's returning from missing all of the 2006 season with a high ankle sprain. Chris Marinelli (SO, 6-7, 304) is the other tackle and made the Pac-10 All-Freshman team last season.
UCLA's defensive two-deep, for the first time in recent memory is completely healthy coming into the first game of the season.
The spotlighted match-up on the defense will be Davis against Smith, but the guy that could really dominate the line of scrimmage is UCLA's defensive tackle Brigham Harwell. Harwell has been a good player over the course of his three-year career at UCLA, but the word is that he's developed into a monster now, and he definitely looks the part physically. With Stanford not having too much in the middle of its OL, Harwell has a chance to start the season with a bang. Also watch to see how the only new starter on UCLA's defense, defensive end Nikola Dragovic, does in this game. It's key that he's a big enough threat to keep opposing offenses honest in blocking Davis.
UCLA's back seven has to be among the most solid in college football, with a great deal of combined experience. The anchor, of course, is middle linebacker Christian Taylor, who is the brains behind the outfit. The safeties, though, Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes, will be tough match-ups for the Cardinal, two good athletes that know their scheme very well and can blitz from any spot on the field.
Advantage: UCLA. How well UCLA has dominated UCLA's offense in fall camp is about what we expect to see in this game against Stanford's offense. Yeah, there will be some element of surprise in Stanford's offense, but this is an easy match-up for UCLA's defense - going against an offense that runs a very similar scheme to UCLA's offense without the personnel. You can expect UCLA not to show too many new wrinkles in this game - as in new blitzing and cover packages. There is no reason for UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker to give away too much against the Stanford offense. But Walker will do plenty to make sure his defense shuts down Stanford's O. With so many experienced guys, with one more year in his defense under their belt, he now has the confidence to be even more aggressive in pressuring the quarterback. In this game, you'll see UCLA try to get to Ostrander, a new starter in a new system, to at least bump him and rattle him into poor decisions. Davis will be teeing off, trying to live up to the hype as the #1 returning sack master in the nation. In Palo Alto, there have been questions about whether the Stanford offensive personnel know the new offense well enough to execute it, and gong up against UCLA's aggressive D isn't the best way to test it in the first game of the season.
UCLA'S OFFENSE V. STANFORD'S DEFENSE
Stanford is hoping that the strength of its team this year will be its defense.
It's also hoping that it's much better than it was a year ago when it gave up 31 points and 388 yards per game, and an amazing 210 yards per game on the ground.
And it's returning 8 starters from that defense.
New defensive coordinator Scott Shafer, who came from a successful stint at Western Michigan, immediately switched Stanford to a 4-3 from a 3-4 for the first time in five years. Shafer did so, first, because it's the formation he's comfortable with, and also to take advantage of Stanford's strength on defense, its defensive line.
Stanford's Ekom Udofia.
Defensive tackle Ekom Udofia (SO, 6-2, 310) is the potential star. He's physically scary and has good quickness for that size. In trying to get its best talent on the field, Stanford moved defensive end Chris Horn (SR, 6-5, 273) inside at the nose. They also have a guy with talent backing them up in Levirt Griffin (SO, 6-4, 270). The famous Erik Lorig (SO, 6-4, 260), who became very well-known in recruiting circles for his indecision on what college he wanted to attend, has moved to defensive end from tight end and observers say he's looked good there. Udeme Udofia (SR, 6-4, 252), Ekom's older brother, moved from linebacker to the other defensive end spot to compete with returning starter Panneh Egboh (JR, 6-6, 275).
It gets considerably more questionable when you then look at Stanford's back seven. It has to replace three starters, including its best defensive player from last year, linebacker Michael Okwo.
It helps that Stanford went to the 4-3; that's one less starter it needed to find in its back seven.
Linebacker Clinton Snyder (SO, 6-4, 230) is the guy getting the most hype as the emerging playmaker. Pat Maynor (JR, 6-2, 217) is supposed to be a heady leader. There was a bit of a battle for the open starting position and the Stanford staff went for what they feel is the next most talented linebacker they have, Fred Campbell (SO, 6-1, 225), over some with more experience. But overall it's a linebacking unit that really needs to prove itself.
The most proven among the back seven are the cornerbacks. Returning starter Wopamo Osaisai (JR, 5-11, 200) is a speedster (the school record holder in the 100 meters at 10.39) who had a good second-half of last season. On the other side, veteran Nick Sanchez (SR, 6-0, 190) won the starting spot since there wasn't much else to push him.
The true question mark of the back seven are the safeties. Stanford has to replace two starters who weren't great, and it's been scrambling to do so since spring practice. Austin Yancy (SO, 6-4, 215) will start at strong safety after last season when he was a wide receiver. Bo McNally (SO, 6-0, 208) has a rep for being hard-nosed, and had a career game in Stanford's one win last year against Washington, but both Yancy and McNally are expected to be pretty iffy as they find their way as new starters in a new system.
On the other side of the ball, UCLA's offense comes in with a few question marks of its own, namely: Can it get production from its quarterback position?
Ben Olson has had the starting spot since the end of spring ball, and he's noticeably improved in the three weeks of fall camp. The lingering issue is whether he's come far enough to be able to make quick decisions in a complicated offense, one that just changed again when new Offensive Coordinator Jay Norvell came on after last season.
For the talented Olson, now going into his third year in the program, it's getting to the time where he has to live up to the hype.
Olson does have some solid guys behind him to hopefully make it easier on him. UCLA has a veteran offensive line, with just one new starter, sophomore tackle Micah Kia. The line started being far more productive toward the end of last season, and the word is that they've meshed well this fall under new O-line coach Bob Connelly. Providing good protection is key for Olson to have enough time to get comfortable and in a rhythm. Chris Joseph, the center who started at guard last season, could be a big key to how well UCLA's offensive line does. He's smart and had a good fall, and will be working himself into a new position. His health, also, is key, since there isn't much talent prepared to play at this level behind him at center.
UCLA's Chris Joseph.
The running backs have to be described as solid, but a bit thin for this game. Chris Markey is probably the least-heralded returning 1,000-yard rusher in the nation. While he's not a homerun hitter, you have to give him credit for his durability. His back-up Kahlil Bell, has looked better than he ever has this fall. But after that, UCLA has been hit by injury. Elite freshman Raymond Carter blew out his ACL early in fall camp, and Chane Moline has a fractured wrist, precipitating the move of Christian Ramirez, a sophomore safety, to tailback. Ramirez first lined up as a tailback when he came to UCLA a year ago and now returns. The bulk of the carries against Stanford should come from Markey and Bell, and you can only expect to see Ramirez in the game in fairly safe situations - like if UCLA has a three-touchdown lead.
UCLA's wide receivers have experience, and should be able to exploit Stanford's generally inexperienced secondary. It will be interesting to watch UCLA's new theory of keeping its receiver starters in the game this season, to see if it helps to get someone like Marcus Everett in a rhythm. Last year, when UCLA used its hockey-line substitutions at wide receiver, it seemed to take the receivers mentally out of the game. UCLA now also has some considerable size at receiver with Joe Cowan (6-4), Gavin Ketchum (6-5), Dominique Johnson (6-4) and Osaar Rasshan (6-4), which could be tough on smaller DBs.
Also, watch for Olson to look to Logan Paulsen, UCLA's tight end, often in this game. Paulsen had a good season last year and has looked tough to guard in fall practice.
Advantage: UCLA. We're all for not raising expectations for no reason, but there is no way UCLA's offense should struggle against Stanford's defense. This could be the least-talented defense UCLA will face all season, trying to learn a new system, with new starters in its secondary. If UCLA's offense can't gain some huge yards and put up some considerable points this Saturday, it could prove to be a long year offensively.
Stanford will need its strength - its defensive line - to step up and, first, shut down UCLA's running game. You can probably expect some box stuffing to take away UCLA's ground game and put the pressure on Olson. Stanford will undoubtedly come after Olson, knowing that, with Patrick Cowan injured, UCLA is one injury away from a walk-on, redshirt freshman, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, taking over the snaps.
It's why it's critical that UCLA open up its offense early, go vertical and stretch the field. If it forces Stanford to defend the entire field initially, they won't be able to stack the box or come after Olson with some back-seven blitzes, because the Cardinal coaches definitely don't want to leave its secondary out there on an island. UCLA should go down the middle and over the top with its bigger receivers and Paulsen to exploit Stanford's green safeties.
UCLA's offense, while it might not have enough play-makers when it goes up against a formidable offense, certainly has more play-makers in comparison to Stanford's defense. Olson should look like he did against Utah in last year's opener, and the receivers should be almost shocked by how much space they have compared to the last three weeks when they were going up against UCLA's defensive secondary.
On special teams, Stanford still hasn't determined who will be its field goal kicker, either Derek Belch (SR, 5-11, 195) or returning starter Aaron Zagory (JR, 6-0, 185), which isn't a good sign. Zagory wasn't great last year. Overall, Stanford's special teams were atrocious last season except for punter Jay Ottevegio (SR, 6-0, 196) who was decent.
It's a bit surprising that UCLA is just 16-point favorites - the #14th-ranked team in the country against a team coming off an 1-11 season in its first game with a new offensive and defensive system.
It just shows you how little respect UCLA gets, particularly its offense.
Most of the pundits are, though, probably justified in their wait-and-see approach to UCLA's offense, since, after last season, there isn't much to lead you to believe that UCLA could even score 16 points (since the team averaged just 23 per game last season).
But it can't be said enough how UCLA's offense last year was really a mess - run by an offensive coordinator who wasn't familiar with it. It was unimaginative and very limited.
While we haven't seen it yet in a game, but only in practice, it's pretty clear that this year's offense is different. It's difficult to gauge, since it's been going up against UCLA's defense for three weeks, but you can see far more creativity and efficiency, and UCLA's offensive personnel look more confident and poised.
And, in Stanford, this will probably be UCLA's easiest opponent all season.
Stanford should have more energy and conviction Saturday than the beaten-down Cardinal team UCLA saw a year ago. That, and the homefield advantage, is worth a few offensive series that will take them over the 50-yard line and some defensive stops. But it should be clear early on that UCLA's offense can move the ball against Stanford, and the Bruins will eat up clock and keep its defense off the field.
Stanford usually is only decent in a year when it has okay talent and a great deal of experience. Stanford doesn't have either this year. And then you have to figure in how difficult it's going to be for the Cardinal players in a new, complicated offensive scheme against a very good, experienced Bruin defense.
Stanford's offense will probably be held to about 250 total yards, but the Cardinal will get in scoring position when UCLA's offense makes a couple of mistakes. But other than that, this should be a lopsided affair.