In my three-plus seasons watching Cardinal football, I’m not sure there has been a more important game at Stanford Stadium than tomorrow’s against UCLA.
One can make an argument for Oregon in 2011, of course, but Stanford lost that one and still went to a BCS game. That will almost certainly not happen if the Cardinal falls to UCLA.
That’s what’s at stake if Stanford loses. But if the Card can bounce back and top the Bruins, then it will be in the driver’s seat for the Rose Bowl (with either a win or a loss against Oregon).
The problem is that simple motivation by what’s at stake won’t be enough to beat a very good UCLA team. Besides the fluky Arizona win, the game that gave Stanford the most defensive trouble in 2012 was the Pac-12 Championship Game against UCLA. And the Bruins’ game plan that day? You saw it replicated almost identically by the Utes last Saturday.
So while Stanford also needs to play better offensively, those defensive struggles bring me to the most important thing to watch for Saturday: How well can Stanford’s defense slow down this bubble-screen/swing-pass/read-option attack?
There is one reason to think that the Cardinal will be worse off this week than last and another reason to think that Stanford will be better off.
On the pessimistic side, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is a lot better than Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, especially in the downfield passing game.
This could present a very big problem for Stanford’s defense. As we saw against Utah, the best way to stop the swing pass and bubble screen is to have many defensive players flowing toward that side of the field. Look to see both safeties flowing with the motion to try to help out the cornerbacks and linebackers.
However, that strategy leaves one man on an island: the backside cornerback. Utah burned Stanford deep once last Saturday on a 51-yard touchdown pass against senior cornerback Devon Carrington. Stanford is going to have a few one-on-one coverage situations, and with Hundley’s athleticism, accuracy and poise, Cardinal defenders won’t get away with bad defense. One or two of those deep balls could be the difference in the game.
The reason to be optimistic is that UCLA’s offensive line is a big weakness, especially on the right side. Right guard Alex Redmond and right tackle Caleb Benenoch are true freshmen, and Benenoch has only one career start under his belt.
Normally, a matchup like that would mean domination by the Card. However, Stanford’s hobbled defensive line has been having trouble getting any penetration whatsoever. Perhaps sophomore Luke Kaumatule’s move from tight end back to defensive end this week will provide the spark that the defensive line needs to restart the #Partyinthebackfield.
Otherwise, there’s no reason to think Stanford will be able to stop the Bruins any better than it stopped the Utes, leaving a heavy burden on its special teams and offense to put up a lot of points and save the season.
Sam Fisher’s move from play-by-play to defensive line this week didn’t go quite as smoothly as Luke Kaumatule’s. Remind him not to quit his day job at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.