Given the way the Andrew Luck hype machine was turned to full blast this summer by Jim Harbaugh and given the fact Mel Kiper and Co. bought right in, perhaps UCLA was right to initially think that the Stanford game-plan for Saturday’s Pac-10 opener would be pass-heavy.
Heck, just given Luck’s performance as a freshman for the Cardinal last season, and you could forgive the Bruins for expecting Luck, Luck and even more good Luck.
But then Kansas State’s Daniel Thomas filleted the UCLA defense.
Now, the Bruins expect the reliable Stanford rushing attack to make its usual appearance.
“I expected it to be the Andrew Luck Show originally, before the Kansas State game,” Dye said. “But we showed a little run weakness on the defense, so we’re playing it both.”
A little run weakness?
Only if 313 yards rushing – 234 by Thomas, with two touchdowns – is a little weakness.
Only if 72 yards to a backup, the Wildcats’ William Powell, including a 28-yard touchdown, is a little weakness.
Only if allowing a 50-percent third-down conversion rate is a little weakness.
And the Titanic was a little tugboat.
“There were fewer assignment errors, it was more tackling issues,” UCLA linebackers coach Clark Lea said. “I saw a group that early in the game was gangbusters. The tempo we played at early was championship tempo. Then I saw a group in the third and fourth quarter that faded. … It’s not a matter of not working it; we tackle every day. It’s that, when you get tired, your fundamentals go. We have to find a way to eliminate that.”
Facing a Stanford offense that loves to pound the ball and then catch a defense over the top, Luck’s specialty, UCLA will be tested.
Earlier this week, head coach Rick Neuheisel recalled two play-action post routes that burned the Bruins in their 24-16 loss at Stanford last season. But the Cardinal had Toby Gerhart then, so getting caught looking for the run might have been expected.
Well, Stanford lost Gerhart to the Minnesota Vikings, but didn’t lose a step, as eight ball-carriers – none with more than eight carries – combined for 213 yards in a 52-17 season-opening win over Sacramento State last Saturday.
“Stanford is an extremely disciplined football team, as was Kansas State; I mean, they huddled up before they ran off the field every time,” said Dye, who led the team with 15 tackles. “When you have disciplined teams like that, if we don’t have gap assignment, things like Kansas State happen. They ran all over us. That’s what we’ve really stressed this week – make a play, but do it within your responsibility.”
If the Bruins lacked discipline on defense against the Wildcats, they lacked consistency on offense.
UCLA gained a respectable 313 yards of total offense, but was plagued by dropped passes and poor throws, as sophomore quarterback Kevin Prince struggled after missing much of the month prior to the game because of a strained oblique muscle.
The Bruins went just 3-of-13 on third down, advanced to the red zone just twice, and turned the ball over three times, including twice in the second half.
Now the preseason optimism is tempered, the confidence of a 7-6 season and EagleBank Bowl win seemingly lost. The Bruins don’t believe they’re up against the ropes, they think they’re on the canvas.
Right where they want to be.
“We talk about things like the Hagler-Hearns fight, legendary; we have to be able to get punched in the mouth and get right back up and punch again,” Dye said. “Two great fighters going into the ring, and that’s what we’ve got this week, Stanford and UCLA. Well we got punched in the mouth, and I think it was good for us.”