The No. 9 UCLA Bruins travel north to face the No. 13 Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto this Saturday with a huge opportunity on their hands. This is the first time that UCLA has been ranked in the top 10 since the last time they won at Stanford…back in 2005. Jim Mora will have his team ready for redemption against a Cardinal squad that beat them twice last season in the span of two weeks. In so doing, UCLA can end a five-game losing streak against Stanford, snap the Cardinal’s 12-game home winning streak, hand Stanford back-to-back losses for the first time in four years and, most importantly, effectively end the Cardinal’s chances of a Pac 12 title.
That’s quite a bit on the line for UCLA who could use a win this weekend to distance themselves from the rest of the Pac 12 South and make their push towards a top-five ranking. To do that, they’ll need to overcome a Stanford squad that has had their number. Last season, Brett Hundley threw for 438 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in the two games combined and will be looking for a bit of personal redemption. He’s playing as well as ever this season and coming off a career-day against the Cal Bears last week where he threw for 410 yards and four touchdowns.
He won’t get to play the Cal defense this week (who will probably give up a lot of career-days this year) but that confidence in his ability to throw the ball even without the benefit of the running game (Cal held UCLA to a season-low 78 yards rushing last week) will serve him well against a tough Stanford defense. He will need to be at his best as he takes the Bruins into hostile territory and make sound choices with the football to protect ball security and keep drives moving. Sustaining drives will be so important against Stanford as big plays will be few and far between on this team.
But this isn’t the vaunted Stanford D that shut UCLA down last season and ranked No. 1 in the Pac 12. In fact, they are reeling a bit after a tough two-week stretch against the Washington Huskies and Utah Utes where they gave up an average of 452.0 yards in the two contests. They’ve surrendered more than 400 yards of offense three times in total this season (all in the last four weeks) after allowing three games of 400 yards or more all of 2012. Injuries along their defensive front remain a serious concern for David Shaw and the Stanford staff as they attempt to right the ship.
That opens up opportunities for Hundley and the UCLA offense to make plays. The key for them will be to take what’s available and avoid costly mistakes. Stanford still boasts one of the best linebacker groups in the country and they will feast on mistakes. Whether it’s the young tandem of freshmen at right guard and right tackle properly communicating and executing protections or Hundley diagnosing a coverage, the Bruins will succeed on offense if they stay sharp.
Offensively, Stanford has hit a rough patch and have struggled to generate consistent offense with Kevin Hogan shouldering more of the offensive load through the air. They were bailed out against UW (and kept in the game against Utah) by special teams touchdowns from Ty Montgomery, but the offense is averaging just 334.0 yards per game the last two weeks and rushed for a season-low 143 yards against Utah which has dropped them to No. 11 in the Pac 12 in total offense.
They’ll have a tough time getting things turned around against a UCLA defense ranked No. 3 in the conference right now. The Bruins have athleticism at every level that has been flying sideline to sideline making plays. They will be selling out to stop the Stanford running game to force Hogan to try and beat them with his arm. That will give Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year candidate Anthony Barr a chance to get unleashed in the pass rush and force Hogan into throwing some difficult passes under duress.
Stanford’s grip on the Pac 12 race is tenuous right now after looking vulnerable against UW two weeks ago and stepping into an upset against Utah last week. The Cardinal are wobbling and their chances at getting back to the Pac 12 title game look dim. UCLA is a team on a mission to knock the defending champs out of the race this weekend. Do the Bruins have what it takes to finish Stanford off?