Stanford Preview

It's probably the biggest game of the Rick Neuheisel era. If UCLA beats Stanford, it's 4-0 and on its way to a successful season. But the Cardinal looked very impressive last week, and they have one of the best tailbacks in the country in Toby Gerhart...

FACTS AND FACTORS

-- UCLA travels to Palo Alto to take on Stanford Saturday. The game is slated for a 12:30 start and will be televised on ABC, with Dave Lamont and David Norrie calling the action.

-- UCLA is the only undefeated Pac-10 team, at 3-0. It's the Pac-10 opener for the Bruins.

-- Stanford is 3-1, and 2-0 in the Pac-10, which has them atop the conference.

-- The series between the two schools goes back to 1925, with UCLA holding a 45-31-3 edge all-time.

-- UCLA is 19-18-2 in games played at Stanford.

-- The Bruins have won the last five meetings, including last year's meeting at the Rose Bowl, 23-20. The current five-game losing streak for Stanford is the second longest in the history of the series, with Stanford losing six in a row between 1963 and 1968.

-- In the first meeting between the two schools in 1925, Stanford won, 82-0.

-- Stanford allowed a school-record 72 points in a 72-0 defeat against UCLA in 1954.

-- Stanford is coached by Jim Harbaugh, who is in his third year on The Farm. Harbaugh went 4-8 in his first year, 5-7 last season and now is 3-1. It's generally considered that Harbaugh has done a very good job since heading up Stanford, dramatically upgrading its recruiting. The highlight of his Stanford coaching career was perhaps one of the biggest upsets in college football history, when in 2007 he upset #2-ranked USC.

-- The Cardinal's 3-1 start is its best since 2004, and a win over UCLA would give Stanford its best start since 2001.

-- Stanford is 6-1 at home over the last two seasons, after going 3-16 at home from 2005 to 2007.

-- The Cardinal's only loss in its last seven home games came against sixth-ranked USC, in its final home game of last season.

-- Stanford has only trailed for 2 seconds in any game this season.

-- UCLA and USC will both be in the Bay Area this weekend, with the Trojans playing Cal in Berkeley.

-- UCLA is coming off a bye week. The Bruins are 8-8 in games right after an off week in the last 10 years. Last season, the Bruins had three off weeks and lost in each of their next games.

-- The weather in Palo Alto on Saturday is forecast as perfect football weather, sunny and 70 degrees.

STANFORD'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

If you're a college football fan, you have to love this.

This match-up pits one of the best rushing offenses in the country against one of the best rushing defenses. It has its senior stars, Stanford's running back Toby Gerhart and UCLA middle linebacker Reggie Carter, facing off across the line from each other. And it has its developing dramas – the young Stanford quarterback, redshirt freshman Andrew Luck, looking to pick on the young UCLA cornerback, true freshman Sheldon Price.

Stanford's rushing offense is 11th in the country and UCLA's rushing defense is 9th in the country.

To be 11th in the country, after three games, you have to be doing something right. But, even after we just hyped Stanford's running game, the question has to be asked: Is Stanford really that good at running the ball? Are the numbers and rankings misleading? Is the 233.8 yards per game on the ground misleading because of the opponents the Cardinal has done it against?

Stanford has gone up against Washington State (92nd in the country against the run), Wake Forest (67th), San Jose State (117th), and Washington (106th). Now, of course, Stanford's performance against each of these teams has skewed those numbers a bit, but each of these teams did play against three other opponents.

Like always, it's probably somewhere in the middle: Stanford probably is a good running team, but not necessarily the powerhouse that the stats are indicating.

They'll get their first real test to prove themselves this Saturday against UCLA's proven defense.

The question might be the Stanford offensive line. It looked stupendous against Washington last week, but the Huskies, after looking super-human against USC the previous week, returned to looking like paper dawgs against the Cardinal.

The Stanford OL just can't be as good as it looked in that game. It would be about the same as saying that UCLA's offensive line was really good; it would be a stretch and probably premature. Stanford's offensive line had to replace two all-conference players from a year ago, then lost its starting, veteran right tackle, Matt Kopa, after the first game of the season, and has two redshirt freshmen on its starting five.

The line is lead by senior Chris Marinelli (6-7, 300), who had to move to tackle because of the loss of Kopa. He's an experienced veteran, with 22 consecutive starts under his belt. Junior center Chad Beeler (6-3, 285) is a returning starter, but then it gets young and inexperienced from there. Junior left guard Andrew Phillips (6-5, 299) has some starting experience, but redshirt freshmen, tackle Jonathan Martin (6-6, 291) and guard David DeCastro (6-5, 310) are new starters. Give them credit for a phenomenal first four games of the season, but they are facing their first real test this Saturday.

It helps, though, when you do have one of the best, proven running backs in the country in Gerhart (6-1, 235). Gerhart came close to putting his name in the major league baseball draft last spring but didn't, to the consternation of the rest of the Pac-10. Gerhart is third in the nation, averaging 129 yards per game, and is still under-rated nationally. He's not only big, but deceptively fast for his size, and that makes it near impossible to bring him down individually or with arm tackles.

Quarterback Andrew Luck.
It has also greatly helped Stanford's running game that they've developed some offensive balance. The passing game, behind Luck (6-4, 235), has been solid to date (185 yards per game) and consistent (averaging 60% completion). Luck has been pretty impressive, showing sharpness in completing the short passes of Stanford's west coast offense but then good accuracy throwing the ball down the field also. Luck is getting hyped as the next big Stanford star quarterback, and he's looked the part a quarter of the way into his redshirt freshman season. Luck is a threat to tuck the ball and run, too.

Luck, though, hasn't been asked to do too much this season. In dominating Washington last week, they did it on the ground, with Luck throwing just 14 times. And those were 14 pretty safe throws.

When Luck does throw the ball, he has good targets. Junior Ryan Whalen (6-2, 205) leads the team in receptions with 16 in four games. The other returning veteran is junior Doug Baldwin (5-11, 184). But the guy who has emerged as the budding star is sophomore Chris Owusu (6-2, 201), not just because of his kick-off returns (which we'll get to later), but because of his pass-catching ability. Owusu combines size and very good speed to make him the long-ball threat for Stanford.

The Cardinal also has a set of solid tight ends, led by junior Coby Fleener (6-6, 241), who is a big target.

One of Stanford's best receivers is its fullback, junior Owen Marecic (6-1, 244). The Cardinal's offense will throw him the ball out in the flat at least once a game.

UCLA's defense is a proven run stuffer, led by a very good front seven. Of course, there is Brian Price, the future NFL-er, at defensive tackle, who is having a very good season so far. There is perhaps the best middle linebacker in the Pac-10 in Carter. But the guy who is having an all-Pac-10 season so far himself has been weakside linebacker Kyle Bosworth. Bosworth is second on the UCLA squad in tackles behind Carter, and has been all over the field, and consistently in the right place to make the tackle.

Linebacker Kyle Bosworth.
The weak spot on UCLA's defense is definitely at one corner. It lost starter Aaron Hester to a cracked fibula in the first game of the season, and now it looks like true freshman Sheldon Price has stepped up and won the spot in Hester's absence over Courtney Viney. Price had his first start against Kansas State, and he got good reviews from the UCLA coaches. But Kansas State didn't have much to test Price, and UCLA protected him. It will be interesting to watch when the 165-pound Price tries to tackle the truck that is Gerhart out in space, or tries to shed a 250-pound tight end in run coverage. And you know that Stanford will definitely put Price to the test through the air.

Advantage: UCLA. We said earlier in the season that it will be very unusual for an opposing offense to get the "advantage" against UCLA's defense any time this season. When UCLA takes the field, the UCLA D is almost certainly going to be the best unit out there.

But there is a chink in the armor with UCLA having to go with Price at one corner spot. If UCLA gives Stanford the 7-yard cushion it did against Kansas State, daring the quarterback to execute and make that 7-yard pass, Luck will do it all the way down the field. Also, if UCLA does sneak up another guy into the box, like strong safety Tony Dye, to help shut down Stanford's running game, it will be leaving Price on an island a bit, in man coverage. So, having to go with a true freshman at one corner definitely has reverberations throughout UCLA's defense, which makes the match-up with Stanford's offense quite a bit closer than it would have been had Hester been playing.

But all in all, Stanford's offense won't have its way like it did against Washington, or Washington State or San Jose State. If you want probably a good preview of what it will look like, Stanford's game against Wake Forest might be a better indication. In that game, Stanford gained a solid but unspectacular 115 yards on the ground. They passed the ball more, and were successful doing it, gaining 276 yards in the air, with Luck going 23 for 34.

Watch for Stanford to throw the ball more against the Bruins, unleashing Luck more than we've seen so far this season, for a couple of reasons: 1) to try to catch UCLA keying on Stanford's running game and 2) to exploit Price and a UCLA passing defense that has been pretty much untested so far this season. Stanford has gotten good protection for its quarterback, having allowed a Pac-10-low two sacks on the year, but it also hasn't really seen the pressure it will get against UCLA. UCLA, though with its ball-hawking secondary, would want the redshirt freshman Luck to put the ball in the air.

UCLA's tackling will have to improve on the performance against Kansas State, especially in trying to bring down Gerhart. If it tackles like it did in that game, Gerhart is running for 150+ yards and that's probably the ball game.

In this match-up something is going break from the norm that's been established so far this season, and that could be the key to the game. UCLA will shut down Stanford's running game or the Cardinal will burn UCLA's passing defense. More than likely, the game will be decided on this side of the ball.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. STANFORD'S DEFENSE

The marquee match-up in this game is definitely Stanford's offense against UCLA's defense, but the other side of the ball has some intrigue, too.

There probably isn't any element to this game with more drama than UCLA's quarterback Kevin Craft going on the road to start against the Cardinal this week.

Kevin Craft.
With starting quarterback Kevin Prince out for one more week with a fractured jaw, Craft, much maligned for his 20-interception season a year ago, is trying to continue to redeem himself.

He took a step to redemption against Kansas State, putting in a solid game against the Wildcats.

Now, facing Stanford on the road, it's the true test. If he has a good game and leads UCLA to a win, vindication will be his. If not, more than likely the rap he got as a result of last season will forever be his public persona.

Which way will it go for Craft? That's a tough one. Craft is easily a better quarterback than he was a year ago. He's a year deeper into Norm Chow's offense, and has a year of experience under his belt.

Also, on one hand, Craft had his best game of last season against Stanford, completing 23 of 39 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns. He engineered an 80-yard game-winning drive, capped by a seven-yard touchdown pass to Cory Harkey with just 10 seconds left on the clock.

On the other hand, Craft struggled monstrously playing on the road last season. In five road games, he threw 12 of his 20 interceptions. He went 1-4 on the road, and the one road win was against lowly Washington where Craft threw three interceptions. He was sacked 17 times.

Craft clearly was less effective last season on the road, probably because he tends to get wound up and lose focus, and he's more susceptible to it playing in a hostile, road environment.

Luckily, Stanford Stadium is never that hostile. In fact, this week at UCLA's practice the coaches didn't even bring out the simulated crowd noise.

The Stanford defense will definitely be trying to rattle Craft however. But there's a question of whether they'll be able to do it. In four games, Stanford has generated 10 sacks, which is just okay, especially given the teams the Cardinal has faced. Washington and Washington State are two of the worst teams in the conference for protecting their quarterback.

Sophomore defensive Thomas Keiser (6-5, 257) looks to be one of the best individual pass rushers in the conference, having four sacks on the season so far, and seven tackles for loss. The other defensive end is senior Erik Lorig (6-4, 275),who is a solid player with good quickness (except in making recruiting decisions). The senior nose tackle Ekom Udofia (6-2, 315) is considered one of the best at his position in the conference.

As you can see, Stanford has good senior leadership on defense, and that continues in the back seven, with middle linebacker Clinton Snyder (6-4, 240) leading the team in tackles with 30. The linebacking unit, overall, though, has been questionable, with Stanford having to find two new starters to go along with Snyder. Junior weakside ‘backer Chike Amajoyi (6-0, 235) has had some moments, making some nice open field tackles. But the Stanford linebackers have generally been lacking good pursuit, especially on the edges.

The secondary is led by senior free safety and team captain Bo McNally (6-0, 210). McNally is one of those throw-back tough guys.

Stanford, then, has moved some offensive players to the secondary to fill some holes. Former running back, sophomore Delano Howell (5-11, 198), is the other starter at safety. Converted wide receiver Richard Sherman (6-3, 190), a senior, is at one corner spot. The other corner is junior Corey Gatewood (5-11, 188), who has looked promising but has made some mistakes. All three are new starters this season.

UCLA's offense is going to try to run the ball, which it should do against an unspectacular Stanford rushing defense. UCLA's offensive line has generally been producing a good amount of running room. The Bruins will get back pre-season projected starting tailback Christian Ramirez, too.

The UCLA offensive line has also provided its quarterbacks good protection so far this season, which is probably a key component in this game. If Craft can keep from getting pressured, like against Kansas State, he clearly is a better quarterback.

It seems we say this almost every week, and it's only been incrementally true: Expect UCLA to open up its playbook a bit. With the addition of Ramirez as a weapon, who UCLA likes to split out wide and use as a receiver, and Craft's ability to run, watch for Chow to throw in more wrinkles to this week's game plan. Stanford's defense hasn't been good in containing edges or pursuing outside, so look for UCLA to try to stretch the field laterally and make the Cardinal run sideline to sideline. If UCLA has been holding back on its playbook this season to not show its hand, this is the game it needs to show its cards (pun intended).

Advantage: Even. Neither UCLA's offense nor Stanford's defense is great, at least at this juncture. Stanford's defense looks better statistically because it's gone up against some pretty weak offenses so far this season. But despite having some senior leadership, and having some talent in spots, overall it's not a greatly talented unit. If UCLA can get some time for Craft, he should be able to exploit the inexperienced Cardinal secondary.

It's really a big test for UCLA's offensive line. But it's not as if UCLA's youthful OL hasn't gone into a road environment and not weathered it. The experience going to Tennessee a few weeks ago will carry it a long way in this one. It did a decent job opening up holes for running backs and Tennessee only got to Prince twice in that game.

Returner/receiver Chris Owusu.
SPECIAL TEAMS

Usually this the ho-hum part of the game preview, but not in this case.

UCLA, of course, has good special teams units, possibly among the best in the country, at least due in part to Special Teams Coach Frank Gansz, Jr.

Stanford, though, can easily make the same claim, with the #1 kick-off return unit and the #15 punt return outfit in the country.

Chris Owusu is making national headlines, having returned three kickoffs for touchdowns. That ties him for the Pac-10 record, which is held by UCLA's Matt Slater (2007) and USC's Anthony Davis (1974). Two of Owusu's touchdowns were on the initial kickoff of the game, immediately deflating the opponent and putting it in a hole. He leads the nation, averaging 59.2 yards per kickoff return.

So, what does UCLA do? Do they kick off to Owusu? Do they kick away from him or just squib it? If there's been an aspect of UCLA's special teams that hasn't been necessarily great it would be its kickoff coverage.

But UCLA can't rest when it's punting the ball either, since Richard Sherman is averaging 20 yards per return, which is 6th in the country. He's returned one, a 59-yarder, for a touchdown.

UCLA punter Jeff Locke, who also handles kickoff duties, is a key in this game. Getting hang time is crucial, enabling UCLA's punt and kickoff coverage teams time to get down the field.

UCLA's placekicker Kai Forbath is the best in the country and puts points on the board for the Bruins. The 9 to 12 points he contributes in every game has been the difference.

Prediction

It's intriguing how similar the teams are. Both programs are coached by high-energy head coaches, who have started to turn around their respective programs with good recruiting. Both teams are, overall, young, with Stanford and UCLA both developing young but talented offensive lines. If Kevin Prince were in the line-up, you could also say that they both were fielding up-and-coming redshirt freshman quarterbacks. Both defenses rely on experienced and talented seniors.

If you just watched the Stanford-Washington game, you'd give the edge to Stanford in its match-up with UCLA. But we think that the UDub game wasn't an accurate indication of the type of team Stanford is. The Cardinal simply hasn't faced a good team yet, and certainly hasn't gone up against a good defense like UCLA's.

Stanford has three aspects going for it in this game – home field advantage, UCLA's starting quarterback being out and UCLA having to start a true freshman cornerback. Those three things will make this a very close game, which, really, could go either way. The teams are very evenly matched.

It would be a complete surprise if this were a high-scoring game. UCLA's defense will keep Stanford's offense in check, and UCLA's offense will keep UCLA's offense in check.

But, once again, the best unit on the field is UCLA's defense. As it's done many times in the past, we're expecting UCLA's defense to win this game, by limiting Stanford's offense and creating some points with turnovers and field position.

This is perhaps the biggest game yet of the Rick Neuheisel era, given the timing and situation. If the Bruins lose, it will reiterate the mantra that UCLA isn't there yet and still has a very long ways to go. If the Bruins win it – getting a conference road victory against an up-and-coming team that is 2-0 in the conference – it will put the Bruins at 4-0 on the season, just two victories away from being bowl eligible with 8 games to go, and probably get them ranked for the first time under Neheisel.

UCLA 23
Stanford 21


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