What to watch for: No. 8 Stanford vs. No. 17 UCLA at the Rose Bowl
Which offense will show up at game time?
For Stanford to win early this season, it required quarterback Josh Nunes to control the game and not turn the ball over and Stepfan Taylor to have a big day on the ground. Combined with a defense that doesn’t give up much to anyone except Arizona, that was a recipe for success. It might not be enough against the Bruins, who have a Doak Walker finalist of their own in Johnathan Franklin and a quarterback in Brett Hundley who has been slinging the ball all over the field of late. But redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan breathed life into the Stanford offense when he took over for Nunes four games ago and was key in wins over both Oregon schools. Bruins head coach Jim Mora has been dialing it in of late, as UCLA is averaging 42.8 points during its five-game winning streak, but the last time UCLA took on a top-25 defense, it lost to Oregon State by seven. Look for Stanford coach David Shaw to continue rolling Kevin Hogan out in his third straight start and attacking the edge of UCLA’s defense, but this game could come down to who sets the edge up front and which running back can find the holes.
Can UCLA’s underrated defense hang with the Cardinal’s top-rated unit?
Stanford’s defense is the best against the run this season, holding opponents to just 71 yards per game on the ground and shutting down all-everything back Kenjon Barner in the Cardinal’s upset win over No. 2 Oregon two weeks ago. That being said, much of the pressure in today’s game sits squarely on the shoulders of that same defensive line, missing nose tackle Terrence Stephens and facing one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. If Hundley has time in the pocket, he might be able to do some damage against a Stanford secondary that hits hard and makes plays but is at times susceptible to quick-strike offenses. Conversely, UCLA has been very good at getting to the quarterback, but will have to bring Hogan down inside the pocket or risk getting burned when Hogan rolls out and becomes a dangerous dual threat. But UCLA’s O-line has given up 3.27 sacks per game — 110th in the country — and that does not bode well for Hundley. If both offenses get moving, Stanford certainly has to be considered the favorite to make at least a few stops late and put Hundley on his back several times if it can #partyinthebackfield.
Will special teams be a big factor for the Cardinal yet again?
Jordan Williamson is overflowing with confidence after coming through when it mattered most and drilling the game-winning field goal to knock off the Ducks in overtime last weekend. But punter Daniel Zychlinski was the one who was named Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week after pinning Oregon deep in its own territory repeatedly and not allowing De’Anthony Thomas to get anything going in the return game. In a matchup that most expect to be close, field position will be very important on both sides, and the loss of Bruin return man Damien Thigpen to an ACL tear might be critical. UCLA’s Ka’imi Fairbairn had three extra points blocked in one game this year but has connected on 12-17 field goals and made the game-winner to beat ASU in October. UCLA has blocked six kicks in the past two games, including a blocked punt to stem USC’s comeback attempt last week. I’m betting the special teamers earn their pay this week.
SCOREBOARD WATCHING: Oregon and Oregon State kick off in the Civil War at noon, so the game should be ending right around kickoff at the Rose Bowl. An Oregon loss guarantees Stanford’s spot in next Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship, and UCLA is already in no matter what, so this game might determine nothing but who gets to host.
TAILGATING GUIDE: UCLA cracked down on its tailgates after a nasty incident with USC fans last season. This year, look out for the UCLA’s Tailgating Ambassadors, dressed in green and patrolling the tailgates from the Rose Bowl. There is no alcohol consumption after kickoff (3:30 p.m.), and there are no glass containers allowed. Underage drinking is not allowed. Parking is $20, $50 for RVs.