Stanford thoroughly beat the Bruins Saturday night. That it felt disappointing shows how far Jim Mora has taken the program in a year; few are pointing to a nine-win season (first since 2005!) as solace.
With the Pac-12 Championship up next, the Bruins should at least be more energetic, something players brought up as an issue. There’s no emotional exhaustion from a big win and nothing to look forward to. Some other hurdles facing UCLA before the Stanford rematch:
Stanford’s offensive line: The main talk throughout the weak was the fearsome Cardinal defense. The front seven certainly harassed the Bruins all night, keeping both the run and pass in check, but also troubling was how little UCLA could do on defense. Jim Mora had said earlier this week that the game could rest on UCLA’s defense and special teams — on Saturday, neither showed up particularly well.
Stanford’s offensive line absolutely had its way with the Bruins. Even when facing a stacked box, the Cardinal created great seams for tailback Stepfan Taylor. The senior rusher’s two-touchdown night included runs of 40 and 49 yards. Even Anthony Wilkerson, who scored his first touchdown of the season on Saturday, churned out a season-high 48 yards.
“They’re more of a get-in-your-face, try-to-bully-you offensive line,” said linebacker Anthony Barr, who had nine tackles and knocked punter Daniel Zychlinski out of the game. “They’re not as athletic as some offensive lines, but they just use their size to get in your way and try to push you out of the way.”
UCLA tried some defensive adjustments, such as putting Owamagbe Odighizuwa in as an extra lineman, but still couldn’t do much against the Cardinal as they plowed open running lane after running lane. This is likely the hardest fix for the Bruins through a short week of practice.
Consequential penalties: Mora said this week that he wasn’t concerned about the Bruins’ penalty problems, citing a weak correlation between flags and losses. Just looking at UCLA’s 12 penalties for 135 yards on Saturday, one would be inclined to disagree. On the other hand, the Bruins were 5-0 when losing triple-digit penalty yards until this weekend.
The difference is that Stanford is better than any other team UCLA has played this season, and the penalties also came at some of the most inopportune times. There was the especially brutal flag that erased Jordan Zumwalt’s interception, as well as smaller frustrations like fifth-year senior Jeff Baca’s personal foul that backed up an extra point. Johnathan Franklin, 65 yards and a touchdown, likely could have hit triple-digit rushing yards had all the flags disappeared.
“Most of it was just a lot of self-inflicted wounds on our part,” said offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “You’ve got to make some plays.”
After most games this season, players have said the penalties will get fixed. No sign that will actually happen with a short week ahead, so don’t be surprised if some big ones cost UCLA on Friday.
Hundley’s flaws: Brett Hundley was sacked seven times, which helped erase his 38 yards of rushing gains to exactly zero. On the Bruins’ second drive, he was nearly tripped up in the end zone, but stumbled to the six to avoid the safety. That play, among others, was a moment where Hundley really should have just thrown the ball away. He can be excused for having one bad game out of five, but UCLA needs him to be nearly perfect on Friday if it wants to beat Stanford.
“Did I really think he was going to start four weeks ago and go four years of never having one of those games?” Mazzone said. “No. It happens. Turn on the TV on Sunday. There’s guys that have been in the league 13 years and have days like that.
“What’s that old song, ‘Strange Days’? ‘Mama Said There’d Be Days Like These’?” Well, today was one of those days.
Thigpen’s absence: Damien Thigpen’s absence was most glaring on Kenneth Walker’s kick return fumble-turned-touchdown — stretching the Stanford lead to 35-10 midway through the third quarter. On offense, that meant no two-back sets and no legitimate option besides Johnathan Franklin. The only real reinforcement coming there is Steven Manfro, who could take some carries but is still recovery from an ankle injury. This, again, puts some pressure on Hundley to be flawless, especially when Jet is resting.
Coaching showdown: Mora should be named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year, but David Shaw was last year’s winner for a reason. The man might not be the most creative or daring playcaller, but he oversaw a seamless transition out of the Harbaugh era, as well as a remarkable mid-season quarterback switch. Shaw’s the main reason that the Cardinal are vying for a third straight BCS bowl, even without Andrew Luck.
Nothing can take the shine off what Mora has already accomplished, but a win over Shaw would add some extra punch to an already stellar first year. Mora denied holding back any part of his playbook, but if he did, it would certainly make for a more interesting game on Friday.