UCLA vs. Stanford – Reasons for Optimism


While it’s true that UCLA has not beaten Stanford in seven tries and that Stanford is again favored in tonight’s game, there are a couple of reasons that the Bruins may perform better than we expect them to.

Before the season, I predicted UCLA would lose to Stanford and Utah. Nothing I’ve seen from those two schools has caused me to change my mind. Indeed, I doubled down in the weekly predictions column, predicting a 30-17 Cardinal victory this week. I still think that type of victory margin is the most likely, but as I look at the two teams, I think there are some match ups that should give Bruin fans cause for cautious optimism.

More from UCLA Bruins Football

Defensive Personnel

After fielding one of the nation’s best defenses in 2014, the Cardinal lost their entire starting defensive line and secondary – as well as half of their linebackers – to either the draft or graduation. Further, this year’s starters have been banged up. Outside linebacker Kevin Anderson will miss the game. Defensive linemen Aziz Shittu, Brennan Scarlett, and Nate Lohn are expected to be coming back from injury but will likely not be at 100%.

RELATED: Go Joe Bruin Predicts the Game: UCLA vs. Stanford

The Cardinal defense is giving up 4.8 yards per play on the season, an identical mark to UCLA’s defense. Both teams are tied for 30th nationally. Compare that to the previous three seasons, when Stanford finished second (2014), 14th (2013), and 12th (2012) in yards allowed per play. This Stanford front seven could be as permeable as we’ve seen in a long while.

Defensive Scheme

Stanford’s defensive identity emphasizes strength, precision, and discipline. It’s been one of the best defenses in the country for the last several years and has stifled the Bruin offense again and again.

Stanford’s style of defense is very different from the type that has given the Bruins fits thus far this year.

But in the context of this season so far, UCLA’s offense has struggled more with aggressive, blitzing and/or heavy-pressure defenses – particularly BYU and Arizona State. And in that regard, Stanford poses less of a threat. Stanford blitzes less than 20% of the time, compared to the frenetic attack of Arizona State, which has blitzed 56% of the time. The Bruin offensive line should struggle less with reading the defense and therefore miss fewer blocks.

RELATED: O-Line Comes up Short

Havoc is a statistic that measures how many plays result in tackles for loss, sacks, batted passes, QB pressures, etc. – basically anything disruptive that the defense does in the offensive backfield. This is where BYU and Arizona State killed the Bruins offense. BYU ranks 51st nationally in havoc caused, and Arizona State ranks 31st; Stanford, however, ranks 85th. Again, Stanford’s style of defense is very different from the type that has given the Bruins fits thus far this year.

Sep 25, 2015; Corvallis, OR, USA; Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey (5) runs the ball against the Oregon State Beavers at Reser Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Personnel

Think of the Stanford football names that have given you nightmares just since 2012. Stepfan Taylor? Gone. Ty Montgomery? Gone. Tyler Gaffney? Gone. The main offensive weapons for Stanford this year are Kevin Hogan and Christian McCaffrey.

Hogan we know. It’s odd to hear national media talk about Hogan as inconsistent and an underperformer because he comes up huge against UCLA every year. He’s going to do what he’s going to do tonight, and it’s best to just prepare yourself for another career game from Hogan.

RELATED: Know Your Opponent – UCLA at Stanford

But the key offensive play-maker for Stanford is McCaffrey, who with 601 rushing yards, 168 receiving yards, and 380 return yards is second in the nation in all-purpose yards. There’s no doubt he’s a threat, but he’s not Toby Gerhart, he’s not Stepfan Taylor, and he’s not Tyler Gaffney. Those guys would blow tackles and bowl guys over. They were the power runners on which Stanford has built its current identity. McCaffrey, by contrast, is a speed guy. He’s fast and slippery.

This is better for the Bruins because they’re fast on defense, too. They may get pushed around or miss a tackle, but they’ll get to the ball, and they’ll have a better chance tackling McCaffrey when they get there than they would any of his predecessors.

Offensive Scheme

While Stanford does incorporate the occasional zone read or QB option run play into its offense, that’s definitely not their bread and butter. Hogan has rushed twelve times for 67 yards, excluding sacks and kneeldowns, this season. Compare that to the two quarterbacks who have gashed the Bruins defense this year: Mike Bercovici (32 rushes for 157 yards and three touchdowns) and Jerrard Randall (37 rushes for 453 yards and four touchdowns). It’s clearly more central to what Arizona State and Arizona wanted do to on offense than it is for Stanford.

Stanford may increase this facet of their game to exploit weaknesses that the UCLA defense has shown, and I’m sure that they’ll have some success if they do, but that would involve Stanford getting away from its core identity as a pro-style, power offense, and I don’t know that the Cardinal are that versatile that they can morph into a completely different style of team and expect to dominate.

MORE: Jim Mora Not a Fan of Thursday Night Games

This is to UCLA’s advantage because the defense has failed to adjust to mobile quarterback threats, with linebackers and defensive ends crashing to the middle on run fakes leaving wide open lanes on the outside for quarterback keeper runs. While I’m strongly supportive of Tom Bradley as UCLA’s defensive coordinator, one of the adjustments we knew he’d have to make, coming from the more conservative-minded Big Ten, is figuring out how to scheme against dual-threat quarterbacks and read option offenses.

So far the results have been underwhelming. Who knows, maybe he took the off-week to emphasize to his defense the importance of discipline and holding the edge. But even if not, Stanford’s is not an offense that is designed to take advantage of the steep learning curve Bradley faces.

So What?

So I don’t know what. It’s tempting to read all of that and think that UCLA should win tonight. I’d caution against that.

  • None of what I’ve just written is to suggest that the Bruins have an advantage in scheme or personnel, only that these are factors that favor the Bruins. How far those things go remains to be seen.
  • Despite getting Jayon Brown and Marcus Rios back, the Bruins are still missing their best player at each of the three levels of the defense: Eddie Vanderdoes, Myles Jack, and Fabian Moreau.
  • David Shaw still appears to have ownage on Jim Mora the same way Mora has ownage on Rich Rodriguez.
  • And Stanford Stadium is still a stifling hell-maw of a ghost town that sucks the life out of the Bruins and slowly asphyxiates them like the cold empty silence of outer space.

Be ready for ugly tonight. But if UCLA pulls the upset, you’ll at least know the foundations that made that possible.

Next: UCLA vs. Stanford - Game Day Information

More from Go Joe Bruin