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. Continue reading

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At a glance: No. 9 UCLA at No. 13 Stanford

No. 9 UCLA (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12) at No. 13 Stanford (5-1, 3-1)
Location:
Stanford Stadium, Oct. 19, 12:30 p.m.
TV: ABC/ESPN2 (Sean McDonough, Chris Spielman, Shannon Spake)
Radio: 570 AM (Chris Roberts, Matt Stevens, Wayne Cook)

Last meeting: The Bruins need no reminders. UCLA’s 27-24 loss at Stanford in last year’s Pac-12 Championship game was sealed when Ka’imi Fairbairn’s 52-yard field goal attempt fell short in the rain — keeping the team from its first Rose Bowl berth since 1999.

Key storylines: Most of UCLA’s roster clearly remember the back-to-back losses to the Cardinal last November, whether they admit using it as motivation or not. Continue reading

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Pac-12 links: NCAA to announce Oregon resolution Wednesday

» The NCAA will release its findings on Oregon football tomorrow. The Ducks paid a law firm $208,991.48 over a 24-month period as part of their internal investigation into violations.

» Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA is still awaiting potential class-action certification, but it’s already prompted Moody’s to revise the organization’s credit long-term outlook to negative.

» Both the Holiday and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowls will now be tied to the Pac-12 and Big Ten. The Holiday Bowl will pick from the Pac-12 after the Alamo and Rose Bowls; the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl will pick after that. The Big Ten did not announce any locks into certain selections. Continue reading

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Jim Mora ranked among top Pac-12 coaches

The Sporting News released its ranking of all 125 college football coaches today, and UCLA’s Jim Mora came in at No. 28 — one spot ahead of Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez. In the Pac-12, only Stanford’s David Shaw (seventh) and Oregon State’s Mike Riley (14th) are higher.

I agree with this list more than the one Athlon Sports released earlier this month, which docked Mora heavily for inexperience. That ranking placed him at 54th in the country and — inexplicably — eighth among Pac-12 coaches behind Mike MacIntyre and Steve Sarkisian.

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UCLA vs. Stanford: Three potential rematch differences

All week long, coaches on both sides have been talking about how little last week will affect the Pac-12 Championship. Both expect the other team to come out with their best shot, and both expect to add tweaks to their own playbooks — though neither went into detail for obvious reasons. No one thought the short week would make a difference, given that whatever affected one team would likely affect the other.

In the midst of all that coach-speak, what exactly will change? Here are three examples:

Workhorse: Johnathan Franklin has yet to take more than 30 carries this year — something that may change against Stanford Friday night. Jim Mora said that the tailback, who mustered just 65 yards last week, will be a key part of the gameplan again in the Cardinal encore. This isn’t the most revelatory news, but Mora has been careful to save Franklin’s legs for late-game situations. He won’t be as wary of that tomorrow.

“We’ve got a long break after this one,” he said, smiling. “We’re going to ride that horse a little bit.”

If so, that will lessen the team’s need to rely on either Jordon James or Steven Manfro for carries.

Also key will be for the Bruins to keep the game close so that they can actually use Franklin extensively late in the game. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone mentioned after last Saturday’s loss that the team had trouble staying on schedule in terms of downs — meaning they were often faced with more than 10 yards to go. If Franklin can churn out a good rhythm all game, that will help keep UCLA on pace.

On the other side of the field, David Shaw is expecting that the Bruins will “do everything” better than they did a week ago.

“They were on a clip where they won five straight,” Shaw said. “That team didn’t go away. They didn’t disappear last week. They missed some things. They had some chances that went our way.”

In particular, Shaw pointed out Franklin, Brett Hundley, Joseph Fauria and Anthony Barr as the most difficult Bruins for him to gameplan against.

The replacements: Mora said kick return duties have been decided, but wouldn’t specify who exactly He gave only this list of players who might appear: Devin Fuller, Roosevelt Davis, Shaq Evans, Randall Goforth, Kenny Walker.

Simon Goines, Ellis McCarthy and Manfro are also recent examples of players who have been banged up recently, but Mora didn’t rule anyone out.

“We’ve got a couple of guys that are nicked up,” Mora said. “This game is pretty darn important. … There’s not a whole lot that’s gonna keep them off the field.”

Punter Ben Rhyne is filling in for Stanford senior Daniel Zychlinski, who was knocked out of the game by a thundering hit from Anthony Barr last week. Zychlinski’s shoulder is still injured, so Rhyne will take his place after kicking three punts against the Bruins — none of which landed inside the 20. Shaw said he was confident in his backup. (Unspoken was that he was still the backup for a reason.)

“For him, it’s just doing it when it counts,” Shaw said.

In what could be a close, grinding game, even one good roll could make a difference.

Rain game: UCLA has played just once in the rain this season, and it beat USC then. The weather will certainly be wet tomorrow, but the field is being covered with tarp all night and tomorrow morning. Traditional wisdom has it that, if the game does get sloppy, Stanford’s power run game would likely benefit more than UCLA’s up-tempo offense.

“The rain doesn’t really affect our style very much at all,” Shaw said. “We’re going to run the ball.”

“You could look at it two ways,” Mora said. “They’re kind of a physical, pound-it-, grind-it-out team. On the one hand, you can say that might be an advantage.

“But I’ve also been in games where a team that spreads it out a little more, gets playmakers in the open field and creates those one-on-one matchups sometimes has the advantage. If you make a guy miss on a slippery field, you’ve got some ground you can gain.”

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Stanford 35, UCLA 17: Early Takeaways

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.

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