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? Continue reading “Five questions: San Jose Mercury News’ Jon Wilner on Stanford” »

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Stanford’s Ty Montgomery to miss UCLA game with shoulder injury

UCLA’s defense will have one less concern this Friday, as Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery has been ruled out with a shoulder injury.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound wideout and kick returner produced a season-low 87 all-purpose yards against the Bruins last season, but is a dynamic player who is hard to bring down in the open field. The senior leads his team with 61 catches this season (for 604 yards and three touchdowns), which accounts for 28.5 percent of the Cardinal’s reception total. He also has 429 yards on 17 kickoff returns.

Montgomery’s absence will rob an unremarkable Stanford offense of its biggest playmaker. Without a powerful lead back to lean on, quarterback Kevin Hogan has not been able to progress beyond his game-manager role. After averaging 8.9 yards per pass attempt last season — good for 13th in the country — the redshirt junior has dipped to 7.6.

UCLA’s pass rush has picked significantly this month, getting a season-high six sacks against USC. Combined with an improving secondary, the Bruins are now allowing just 6.3 yards per pass attempt — good for second in the conference and 25th nationally. However, defensive backs Ishmael Adams and Priest Willis are questionable with ankle and head injuries.

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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 “What to watch: No. 9 UCLA at No. 13 Stanford” »

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UCLA defense vs. Stanford offense

The Bruins’ defense has been a work in progress all season, a project that’s trended upward. UCLA has been fairly stout against the run (fourth in Pac-12), but the secondary has been a point of concern all season long. Last week was somewhat of a redemption outing for the pass defense, although the game-opening interception was gift-wrapped by Matt Barkley.

Most encouraging is that USC receivers — thought to be a nightmare matchup for the Bruins — didn’t end up with particularly eye-popping numbers. Marqise Lee grabbed nine catches for 158 yards and a score, but next-best was Robert Woods with five for 68. Stanford doesn’t have the type of gamebreakers that particularly trouble UCLA cornerbacks, but it counters with 6-foot-6 tight end Zach Ertz — who has almost twice as many catches (58) as anyone else on his team.

Stepfan Taylor is a very effective runner, but also isn’t known as a big-play back. The Cardinal’s leading rusher only averages just 4.74 yards per carry, good for 19th among all Pac-12 players. Five times this season, UCLA has surrendered over 150 yards on the ground. Four of those times, the opposing team had two backs who averaged over 5.00 per carry.

Quarterback Kevin Hogan, surprisingly, has already become his team’s second-leading rusher with a paltry 185 yards — 134 on 26 carries in his past three games. This speaks both to the Cardinal’s reliance on Taylor as well as its offensive line. Hogan hardly has the athleticism of Brett Hundley, who has run 34 times for 15 yards in his past three games. Hundley, though, has lost 80 yards on 10 sacks. Hogan has taken just five for a loss of 23 yards. It’s up to UCLA’s front seven to make those numbers tick up.

On an additional note, Jim Mora isn’t overly concerned with penalties. The Bruins rank dead last in the country in penalties and penalty yards per game, and some of the more prominent flags have come on pass interference calls.

“This is a 20-year study I did on penalties: The correlation between penalties and winning games is nonexistent,” Mora said Thursday. “And that is a fact. Over the last 20 years in football. Penalties, in general, don’t matter.

A cursory glance at national penalties statistics indicates a weak correlation: the 20 worst offenders include teams such as No. 5 Oregon, No. 8 LSU, No. 16 Oregon State and No. 25 Utah State; the five most well-behaved teams are Air Force, Kansas, Navy, No. 7 Kansas State and Army.

EDGE: Even

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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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