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 vs. Stanford: Running Score

FINAL: Stanford schooled UCLA after the Bruins kept pace at 7-7 after one quarter. After the game, Jim Mora vehemently denied holding back any effort or playcalls to draw an easier path to the Rose Bowl. If UCLA had beaten Stanford, it would have traveled to Eugene on Friday to face Oregon for the Pac-12 title. As it stands, winning a rematch against the Cardinal won’t be easy, but is certainly doable.

Stanford 35, UCLA 17 – 1:53 third quarter: Johnathan Franklin ran 11 yards for UCLA’s third score of the game, capping the Bruins’ five-play, 65-yard drive. A personal foul by Jeff Baca backed the PAT 15 yards, but Ka’imi Fairbairn didn’t have any trouble knocking it through.

Stanford 35, UCLA 10 – 7:28 third quarter: UCLA is starting to break apart at the seams after holding Stanford back well for most of the game. Freshman Kenneth Walker fumbled on a kickoff return, and Usua Amanam returns it for a touchdown. This one looks over. As a consolation, the Bruins will get another shot at Stanford on the road next week in the Pac-12 Championship. All of Eugene groans.

Stanford 28, UCLA 10 – 7:41 third quarter: Brett Hundley is having one of his worst games of the season. A telegraphed interception leads to a 40-yard run by Stepfan Taylor, who then punches the ball in for a Stanford touchdown.

HALFTIME – Stanford is outgaining UCLA 231 yards to 165. Difference has been on the ground, which isn’t surprising based on how vaunted the Cardinal rushing defense was heading into this game. Bruins have just 34 on the ground to Stanford’s 116, although much of that came on Stepfan Taylor’s 49-yard TD run. Most lopsided stat is Stanford’s 13 first downs to UCLA’s four.

Stanford 21, UCLA 10 – 1:42 second quarter: Freshman kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn with a much-needed 48-yard field goal. The Bruins offense stalled again, but special teams is coming up huge to keep hope alive for UCLA. Anthony Barr absolutely drilled Stanford punter Daniel Zychlinski after a muffed snap, and Cassius Marsh recovered the team’s seventh blocked punt/kick in the past three games. UCLA lost 8 yards on the next three plays, but Fairbairn drilled a career-long field goal to make sure the Bruins got points. He had yet to connect from farther than 35 this year. Continue reading

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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 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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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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