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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UCLA offense vs. Stanford defense

The Bruins have proven themselves on offense again and again this season, so it’s not like Brett Hundley and company are going to turn in a goose egg. That said, Stanford’s defense — especially the front seven — looks like a different animal. When asked about the Cardinal defense this week, one of the first words out of Jim Mora’s mouth was, “Wow.”

The most impressive unit UCLA has faced thus far — at least statistically — is Oregon State, which delivered the Bruins their first loss. The Beavers allow just 18.6 points per game, which puts them at 21st in the nation; Stanford allows 16.9 per game, good for a 10th-place tie.

Some more numbers. Among Pac-12 teams, here are the Cardinal’s rankings in scoring defense, rushing defense, sacks and tackles for loss: first, first, second, first. Rushing defense is main one that sticks out; with Damien Thigpen injured (ACL), UCLA doesn’t have a game-breaking threat when it needs to rest Johnathan Franklin — something Mora has usually done to keep his star fresh for fourth quarters.

Stanford is somewhat vulnerable against the pass (257.1 yd/game, 7th in Pac-12), which is where UCLA needs to strike. But that too, is partially a function of how much teams avoid the run against the Cardinal; Stanford doesn’t intercept the ball often, but have given up just 11 TDs (tied with Oregon State) and 6.1 yards per attempt — good for first and third in the conference. Against the OSU defense, which bears some statistic similarities, UCLA rolled up 444 yards but went just 2 of 15 on third downs. Expect the Bruins to be better there this week, but how much better is unclear. Hundley has been big in such situations in recent weeks.

UCLA’s young offensive line can’t afford mistakes this week. Franklin carried the ball a season-high 29 times against USC for 171 yards. He’ll need to do something similar but against a stouter offense to help take pressure off Hundley.

EDGE: Stanford, slightly

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Belated awards roundup

Johnathan Franklin is one of three finalists for the Doak Walker Award. Wisconsin’s Montee Ball and Oregon’s Kenjon barner are also up for the nation’s top running back honor. The 174-member selection committee is made up mostly of journalists, along with former players and other representatives. The winner will be revealed on Dec. 6 on ESPN at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Joseph Fauria wasn’t a finalist for the Mackey Award, which quarterback Brett Hundley was disappointed about. Jeff Locke wasn’t a finalist for the Ray Guy Award either, which is even more of a snub.

Eric Kendricks won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season after logging eight tackles, one TFL, one forced fumble, a blocked punt and a pick against USC. He doesn’t pop as quite much as Anthony Barr when you’re watching the game, but Kendricks is so consistent across the statsheet almost every week.

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UCLA vs. Stanford: First Look + Bowl Scenarios

UCLA football is on top of the world right now. Not on top of the polls, mind you — No. 15 in AP and No. 17 in the BCS standings — but who honestly cares about that right now? Certainly not Jim Mora, who hammers in the “one game at a time” philosophy with relentless efficacy. Every single player on the roster has absorbed that mindset, and they’re headed to the Rose Bowl if they win out.

Vegas opens with the Cardinal as 1.5-point favorites. Flip a coin.

Why Stanford will win: Start with the defense that held Oregon below 40 the first time all season, and to its lowest point total since Nov. 13, 2010. Linebacker Shayne Skov looks like he never tore his ACL. This is far and away the biggest test for UCLA’s offense.

Stanford also has a redshirt freshman quarterback its own. Kevin Hogan isn’t close to the player Brett Hundley is, but he’s plenty capable in his own right. Keeps plays alive with his feet and doesn’t make costly mistakes. Also, this is a team that should have extended overtime against now-No. 1 Notre Dame, only to be thwarted by a poor call. (Although Stepfan Taylor’s four straight first-and-goal runs do speak to uninspired playcalling.)

Why UCLA will win: Picking against UCLA gets harder with each passing week. Hundley has been poised regardless of circumstance, and can do everything from eluding sacks to zipping fourth-and-long completions. There’s a reason USC defensive tackle George Uko compared the quarterback to Vince Young. Lane Kiffin said the Trojans missed 23 tackles on Saturday, and 12 were attempts on Hundley. Johnathan Franklin is 131 yards away from breaking Karim Abdul-Jabbar’s single-season rushing record. The defense has issues, but can make big plays in crucial spots. And special teams? Killer in the past two weeks, what with the bevy of blocked punts and kicks to go along with Jeff Locke’s automatic leg.

***

Right now, the most likely scenario is still the Bruins in the Alamo Bowl, which has second pick of the Pac-12 after the Rose Bowl. If UCLA loses to Stanford on Saturday and again in the Pac-12 Championship: the Cardinal would go to the Rose Bowl while Oregon — assuming it beats Oregon State — still gets an at-large BCS bid. If UCLA beats Stanford, then loses to the Ducks, the conference gets just one BCS bowl team. That leaves the Bruins, again, with the Alamo Bowl.

Which, by they way, might include West Virginia.

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Bruins escape Pullman, stay steady at No. 17

UCLA held off a two-win team to stay on top of the Pac-12 South, but Saturday night’s 44-36 victory (game story here) was one of the ugliest games the Bruins had played all season. The team — which held on to the No. 17 spot in the AP poll — generally stuck to the line of “We’re just enjoying this win for the next 24 hours.” Few players looked particularly overjoyed while saying it.

Some thoughts: Continue reading

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Franklin, Locke named award semifinalists

Not much surprise here considering the seasons they’ve both had, but seniors Johnathan Franklin and Jeff Locke have been listed among the nation’s top 10 at their respective positions.

Franklin is a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award. The other Pac-12 representatives are Oregon’s Kenjon Barner and Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor, tying the Big Ten with three players on the list. If any member of the trio takes the trophy, it would give the conference its third winner in four years. Alabama’s Trent Richardson won last year after LaMichael James (Oregon) and Toby Gerhart (Stanford). Continue reading

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