What to watch: No. 9 UCLA at No. 13 Stanford

UCLA needs a win over Stanford to firmly seize a spot on the national stage. Can the Bruins pull it off?

UCLA offense vs. Stanford defense:

Stanford’s defense isn’t quite what it was used to be, giving up 22.2 points per game after allowing 18.8 over the past three seasons.

On its way to three straight BCS bowls, the Cardinal finished either first or second in the conference in scoring defense, and No. 9 nationally during the 2010 campaign. This year, the team is fifth in the Pac-12. However, much of that is due to the rest of the conference ticking up: Four teams in the league are holding opponents to below 20.0 points per game. Only four Pac-12 teams had done the same in the previous four years combined.

UCLA’s offense also matches up well against Stanford’s front, which hasn’t been healthy all season. With two ends (Henry Anderson, Ben Gardner) and two tackles (David Parry, Ikenna Nwafor) either out completely or playing through injury, the Cardinal have struggled against Washington and Utah’s spread offenses. At his best, Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley leads a better version of those schemes. He said this week that he looks forward to ‘big-time’ games like this, so look for him to come out firing.

UCLA can’t afford to show up the way it did a week ago against Cal, when Hundley — despite his career-high 410 yards — missed at least two potential touchdown passes. Against a stacked box, the Bruins also couldn’t run block very well with two true freshmen on the right side of their line, finishing with a season-low 78 yards on the ground.

Starting tailback Jordon James (ankle) is again questionable, but Noel Mazzone’s offense creates enough space for backups to fill in without missing a beat. If UCLA’s offensive line can establish the run game while still breaking in freshman Caleb Benenoch at starting right tackle, the team should be in good shape with Paul Perkins in the backfield.

Edge: UCLA, slightly

Stanford offense vs. UCLA defense:

Let’s go back to those defensive rankings. This year, it’s UCLA that’s among the best scoring defenses, ranking second in the Pac-12 and 19th nationally with 18.2 points allowed. The Bruins finished eighth or ninth in the conference the past three seasons, giving up 29.7 points over that span.

With a star-studded linebackers corps and a young, but effective defensive front, UCLA has generated pressure against every offensive line it’s faced this season. Stanford’s is a different beast. All-American David Yankey and All-Pac-12 second teamer Kevin Dasper lock down left and right guard, while left tackle Andrus Peat is quickly making a name for himself. The 6-foot-7 Peat was rated a top-10 tackle in the class of 2011, and has blossomed since coming off the bench in jumbo sets as a freshman. (He has not yet faced someone like linebacker Anthony Barr, however.)

Though the line a notch (or two) above what the Bruins have faced thus far, quarterback Kevin Hogan — sacked only seven times this season — has looked shakier.

The redshirt sophomore has become far less efficient without tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, who sopped up 1,291 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Both moved on to the NFL, and Hogan’s completion rate on third downs dropped from 64.7 percent to 56.4 percent — 0.3 above USC’s Cody Kessler. The difference is even more pronounced on third-and-short situations (1-3 yards): at 60 percent in 2012, down to 22.2 percent in 2013.

It’s a bit of statistical cherry-picking, but it does illustrate how Stanford’s offense has shifted. With receiver Ty Montgomery in the midst of a breakout season, Hogan already has 20 pass plays of at least 10 yards — nearly twice what he had when he started five games in 2012. He hasn’t been able to spread the ball much, though. Besides Montgomery, only freshman Devon Cajuste has double-digit catches.

Hogan has flashed some ability to make downfield throws, but will need to do it more consistently to free up Tyler Gaffney — third among conference tailbacks with seven touchdown runs. Stanford’s 29 rush attempts at Utah were its lowest total since a 17-13 loss at Washington last September.

Though UCLA’s front seven has been key, the secondary has acquitted itself early on too. Maligned as a unit last year and questionable all offseason, the four new starters have looked solid if not always spectacular.

Edge: UCLA

Special teams:

Hello, Ty Montgomery. The junior receiver may be the most explosive player on the field Saturday, and leads the nation with 37.25 yards per return and a pair of scores. Both those end-zone trips have come without much dancing: the 6-foot-2, 215-pound wideout simply finds a seam, and turns on the jets. The Bruins are No. 25 in the country on kickoff coverage, but have yet to face someone as dynamic as Montgomery.

UCLA sophomore Ka’imi Fairbairn is nearly automatic inside 40 yards, but still hasn’t become consistent on his longest tries. Stanford’s Jordan Williamson is somewhat similar; the senior is 9 of 10 inside the 50-yard line this year, but has not hit from 50 yards or farther in his career. He is also questionable to play with a leg injury. Backup Conrad Ukropina converted his lone extra-point attempt this season.

Punter Sean Covington has done fine for UCLA in limited action, landing five of 14 punts inside the 20-yard line. Stanford’s Ben Rhyne, however, is even better with 10 of 20.

Edge: Stanford

Prediction: UCLA gives up a kickoff return touchdown to Ty Montgomery, who also adds his sixth scoring catch of the season. Kevin Hogan, however, can’t get enough done without star tight ends. The Bruins have the final possession, and Ka’imi Fairbairn hits a 43-yard field goal. UCLA wins, 31-28. (Note: I originally picked Stanford, 34-31, and that’s what shows up in the Saturday edition of the Daily News.)

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  • Bruin 34

    I think we won’t allow a kick return for a td. Huge game! Go Bruins! Thanks Jack.

    • Joe Blow

      Hahahaha

  • SonOfWestwood

    Wow that is a very thorough analysis Jack. I especially liked how well you’ve scouted the opponent. Thanks and I hope your second prediction is the correct one.