After its national title aspirations took a major — if not fatal — hit in Salt Lake City last weekend, Stanford football finds itself in unfamiliar territory after the loss, its first since the overtime defeat to Notre Dame in 2012.
Besides losing ground in the tight Pac-12 North Division race, the Cardinal saw a number of its impressive streaks — the second-longest winning streak in the nation and a conference-leading 11 straight victories over Pac-12 teams, among others — snapped last Saturday.
It will be a quick turnaround for No. 13 Stanford (5-1, 3-1 Pac-12) because more streaks and BCS implications will be on the line tomorrow when the Cardinal welcomes quarterback Brett Hundley and No. 9 UCLA (5-0, 2-0) in a division showdown. The Bruins are itching to avenge their loss to the Cardinal in last year’s Pac-12 Championship Game.
Stanford hopes to avoid losing two games in a row for the first time since 2009, when it fell to Oregon State and Arizona in back-to-back weeks. But most importantly, given how dominant No. 2 Oregon has been so far this season, tomorrow’s game is a must-win for the Cardinal if it hopes to defend its Pac-12 title and remain in the Rose Bowl hunt.
“Here we are: We’re 5-1, tied with Oregon State for second place in the Pac-12 North, and we have five straight conference games,” said head coach David Shaw. “It’s going to be hard. I believe our guys are up to the challenge. They know we need a better performance every week from here on out than we had last Saturday.”
After getting gashed by Utah’s bubble screens and zone read, the Cardinal defense will face a tall order in stopping a Bruins offense that likes to run jet sweeps and the read option, two tactics that UCLA used successfully against Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
At the helm of the Bruins offense is Hundley, who has emerged as a dark horse Heisman candidate and also as one of this year’s top NFL quarterback prospects. Hundley showed his raw talents in 2012, but has proven to be a more polished passer so far this season by completing 68.1 percent of his throws for 1,469 yards and 12 touchdowns in addition to rushing for 260 yards and three scores.
“There’s never a point in any game this year where [Hundley] looks uncomfortable,” Shaw said. “He’s not a young quarterback anymore. He doesn’t get surprised, he doesn’t get flustered. Even when he gets rushed, you see him escape with composure…He’s going to be a starter at the next level before too long.”
Saturday’s matchup between UCLA’s offensive line and Stanford’s defensive line should prove to be an interesting one. The Bruins gave up 52 sacks last season, second worst in the nation, and while their pass protection has improved considerably this year, they are also starting two true freshmen on the offensive line.
The Cardinal defensive line, meanwhile, has been plagued by injuries. Senior defensive end Henry Anderson and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Ikenna Nwafor are still out while fifth-year senior Ben Gardner has pain in his arm that, according to Shaw, “hurts like a son of a gun.” Earlier this week, Shaw moved tight end Luke Kaumatule to defensive end in an effort to bolster depth at that position.
So far in 2013, the Bruins have outscored their opponents 71-0 in the third quarter. Part of this third-quarter dominance can be attributed to big plays made by Hundley, but the successful halftime adjustments that the Bruins make on defense have complemented the offensive explosion. Outside linebacker Anthony Barr strikes fear in the hearts of offenses with his deadly versatility in both pass rush and pass coverage. A preseason All-American, Barr forced two fumbles in UCLA’s 41-21 victory over then-No. 23 Nebraska in September.
“[Barr] is unbelievable. As good as he was last year, he’s better [now],” Shaw said. “He looks bigger, stronger, faster. He’s so quick, so explosive, but he’s got power…He’s the best defensive player that the conference has seen in the last few years — I don’t think it’s close.”
The Bruins secondary may not be the most experienced unit in the conference, but it has been effective so far with a 6/8 touchdown allowed/interception ratio. And given that opposing defenses have seemingly found quarterback Kevin Hogan’s kryptonite by dropping seven or even eight defenders back into coverage, the Bruins may be able to game-plan more effectively against Hogan in their third showdown against the Cardinal junior in 11 months.
“They have some young [defensive backs], but also very athletic DBs,” said fifth-year senior center Khalil Wilkes. “They’re a very physical team. They have a lot of big guys up front, and they have a veteran group — a lot of seniors — on that team.”
Tomorrow’s matchup is scheduled for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff, with national television coverage on ABC/ESPN2.
For in-game updates and analysis, check www.stanforddaily.com for our live blog and follow @StanfordSports on Twitter.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.