Five questions: San Jose Mercury News’ Jon Wilner on Stanford

UCLA is limping a bit after a deflating loss to Arizona State nearly two weeks ago, a game that exposed some of the flaws on what is still a talented team. The No. 18 Bruins now need to try and bounce back against 15th-ranked Stanford, the opponent that has given them more trouble than anyone else in the past three years. How do David Shaw and company look this year after a relatively down 2014 campaign? The Bay Area News Group‘s Jon Wilner answered five questions about the Cardinal.

1. Kevin Hogan’s pass efficiency has improved notably compared to what he did in his first three seasons. What are the biggest differences in how he’s played this year?

He’s a fifth-year senior who has mastered the offense, has a veteran line — the left side is as good as it gets in the Pac-12 — and playmakers at running back and tight end (and, to a lesser extent, receiver). Stanford is asking him to do more. He was a game manager as a freshman and sophomore, and last year they had neither the talent nor the scheme. It’s all coming together. He’s also at peace emotionally — last year was difficult for him with his father dying of cancer during the season.

2. Stanford is scoring touchdowns on two-thirds of red-zone trips, compared to 57.5 percent over the past three years. Is this due more to improvements in coaching/playcalling or personnel?

Both. The line is better. There are fewer penalties, fewer turnovers, fewer missed blocks. And the coaches have a better idea how to use the talent, particularly Remound Wright, the short-yardage specialist, and Austin Hooper, one of the top tight ends in the country. But let’s also remember that UCF is winless and Oregon State and Arizona are weak defensively. It’s not like Stanford has put up big numbers against a series of stout defenses. Then again, I’m not sure UCLA qualifies as stout given the injuries.

3. The Cardinal’s streak of six straight 1,000-yard rushers ended last season, but Christian McCaffrey is on pace to join that club. How does he compare to past running backs of the Harbaugh/Shaw eras?

Not nearly as big as Toby Gerhart and Tyler Gaffney and a few pounds lighter than Stepfan Taylor. He doesn’t drag tacklers for extra yards, but his quickness allows him to get to the second level, and he waits for his blockers.

4. Five games into the season, how big of a concern is defensive line depth?

It’s Stanford’s most vulnerable position (other than quarterback, which is No. 1 for everyone). There are three solid players; beyond that, it becomes a roll of the dice. So many teams use spread formations that Stanford often pays with just two linemen, allowing the third to rest.

5. Stanford entered the season with essentially a new secondary, but remains top-30 nationally in most pass defense statistics. Are there cracks that haven’t been fully exploited in the defensive backfield?

It would seem so. Stanford has played five games: Northwestern, UCF and Oregon State has freshmen quarterbacks, and Arizona used a backup who couldn’t throw. The one time the Cardinal faced an elite passer, Cody Kessler, it was carved up pretty well. This is not an elite unit, but it’s good enough to handle mediocre or one-dimensional teams.