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Stanford football back and forth: UCLA

In advance of Saturday’s football game between Stanford and UCLA, The Daily’s Do-Hyoung Park chatted with Andrew Erickson, a senior sports staffer at The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper, to get perspective from both camps. Below is a partial transcript of their conversation.

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan (above) has struggled in two consecutive games, while UCLA's Brett Hundley is coming off a career-high 410-yard performance against Cal. (SIMON WARBY/The Stanford Daily)

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan (above) has struggled in two consecutive games, while UCLA’s Brett Hundley is coming off a career-high 410-yard performance against Cal. (SIMON WARBY/The Stanford Daily)

Do-Hyoung Park (DP): I definitely think that the biggest storyline heading into this matchup is Stanford’s defeat to Utah over the weekend. Kevin Hogan had not lost as a starter going into that matchup but he certainly looked shaky against Utah and against Washington as well. How big of a factor do you think that loss will play on the field on Saturday?

Andrew Erickson (AE): That’s funny, I was about to ask you the same question. Right before UCLA started its game against Cal, I watched the last few plays of the Stanford-Utah game and thought to myself that the absolute best thing for UCLA would be for Stanford to win, primarily because the Cardinal has the Bruins’ number (see: 2012) and any sold-out road game in the Pac-12 is tough enough. Do you get the sense that this Stanford team is angry at all heading into Saturday?

DP: I don’t know if “angry” is the right word, but I do think that the Stanford team that shows up on Saturday will definitely have bitter tastes in their mouths and will want to get back on track. That being said, though, I’m worried about Kevin Hogan. He hasn’t looked great since Washington State and you have to think that taking his first loss as a starter — to an unranked Utah team, no less — has to have an impact on his mentality. Obviously nobody knows whether that will be a catalyst for him to bounce back or whether it will shake his confidence yet, but his best will be necessary to beat the Bruins.

It’s funny that you say that the Cardinal has the Bruins’ number because I was actually about to say that UCLA has Stanford’s number. That Pac-12 Championship loss was a huge scare for the Cardinal and Hundley has looked even better this year. Utah’s game plan on Saturday reminded a lot of people of UCLA’s game plan against Stanford last year in that close loss, and Mora and Hundley have got to be licking their chops and waiting for this shaken-up Cardinal secondary that couldn’t make tackles or cover well against Utah. I think UCLA definitely has the upper hand in this matchup because of that, especially given how it definitely won’t want to lose for a third time this year.

AE: For being a potential All Pac-12 quarterback, Hundley has had his good games, and he’s had his get-the-job-done games. While the stat line points to the contrary, I would say the latter is true of his Saturday performance against Cal. Yes, he finished with a career-high 410 yards and completed 31 of 41 passes, but even he said after the game that it was just “OK.” He under-threw running back Damien Thigpen on what should have been a 70-yard touchdown, missed five potential touchdown passes inside the 10-yard line and consistently seems to be throwing the ball behind slot receiver Devin Fuller, arguably UCLA’s best offensive athlete, on the drag routes they like to run over the middle.

And I like that you brought up Utah. To me, Utah is probably the second-best team in the Pac-12 South and Rice-Eccles Stadium is undoubtedly, because of the crowd noise and elevation, one of the toughest places to play in the conference. It certainly was for UCLA, who I think could very easily have shared Stanford’s fate if it hadn’t picked off six Travis Wilson passes over the course of the game, the last coming with Utah driving in the closing seconds.

DP: I definitely think a lot of people are overlooking a really good Utah team. They took Sean “Superman” Mannion and his Beavers to the edge and also had a great shot at beating the Bruins. And I agree that Hundley makes errors at times but at the end of the day, he has consistently gotten the job done and gotten the victories for the Bruins. What do you think the Bruins’ game plan will be like on Saturday, given Hundley’s abilities and Stanford’s questionable coverage in the secondary?

AE: Good point, and good quote. Hundley’s go-to phrase in press conferences is “at the end of the day,” so kudos to you for the method acting there. What we saw last week from offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was an obscene number of swing passes to some of UCLA’s running backs and wide receivers. That approach worked for two reasons. For one, Cal’s defensive backs consistently played 10 yards off of UCLA’s receivers out in the flat, failing to adjust for much of the game. Second, Cal did a pretty good job of stopping UCLA’s run game, forcing Hundley and others to get down the field through the air.

Whether the Bruins stick to that kind of game plan depends largely upon the abilities of Stanford’s front seven, which, from what I understand, is a pretty talented group that could give UCLA some troubles, especially without starting running back Jordon James.

That being said, I am expecting the Bruins to attack with more verticality this week, testing Stanford’s corners and safeties. I’m not sure whether the Cal game was almost a means of masking a truer, higher degree of difficulty passing attack for the Stanford game plan, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Mazzone threw in a few wrinkles with this offense.

DP: Stanford was also subjected to death by swing pass and bubble screen last weekend, and at the same time its defensive line has looked very beatable — not a very good combination. The Cardinal’s line-backing corps was silenced for much of the game against Utah because the defensive line was just getting beaten. Stanford doesn’t really get beaten over the top a lot, and UCLA obviously didn’t really try to do much with that last year. These are two very different teams from last year, with no Johnathan Franklin in the Bruins backfield and no Zach Ertz on the Cardinal offense as well. That being said, Stanford has looked like a much more beatable team in these last few weeks and UCLA has done what it needed to do. Does it surprise you that Stanford opened as seven-point favorites?

AE: Not particularly. I think Vegas understands that UCLA is playing a road environment that hasn’t granted the Bruins a lot of success in past years. In 2011, UCLA got a face full of Andrew Luck and last year, it was left depressed with a Drew Terrell touchdown. But, you’re right, these are two very different teams, even from 2012 to 2013. I think the point margin, at least for right now, boils down to Stanford having beaten a team like Washington, a group that’s easily within the top two tiers of the Pac-12. Obviously, Stanford has the one loss, but aside from a road victory against a fringe top-25 team in Nebraska, UCLA hasn’t quite had that signature win yet. That, and the fact that the Bruins traditionally don’t play mistake-free football on the road.

DP: What do you think will be the biggest factor in who wins on Saturday?

AE: I think this game comes down who can make the big play at the right time and/or not make costly mistakes when the game is on the line. UCLA has really only played in one game that was close beyond the third quarter, and that was the Utah game. I’ll also point out that it wasn’t close because of the Bruins defense, but because of Hundley, who misread a Devin Lucien out route and gave up a pick six. Hundley later made up for it with a game-winning touchdown run on a draw play.

There’s no glaring weaknesses on either team that lead me to believe Vegas is wrong and that it will be a blowout either way, so the difference could be accounted for in a broken-up pass, an interception or a defender slipping at some point to allow a big play. I’m also glad you mentioned Stanford’s offensive line, which I think could be a handful for UCLA, given that two of its most heavily-featured defensive ends, Keenan Graham and Cassius Marsh, are pretty undersized. If those two in particular can hold their own, as they’ve been able to do for the first five games, then I think we could be in for a tight one.

Any final score predictions on your end?

DP: I definitely agree that this one’s going to come down to a crucial play with the game on the line. I’m not going to be very popular for this one, but I’m going to say UCLA 27, Stanford 24, in a Bruin victory that will turn the tables on the Pac-12 Championship of last year.

I’ve been saying since the beginning of the year that UCLA wouldn’t go down easily a third time in a row, and recent events make me more confident in that prediction. One factor is that tight end Luke Kaumatule is going to be moving to defensive end for this game. Kaumatule has been a solid blocker on the offensive line all year and hasn’t played a defensive snap in his collegiate career despite having played there during high school. I don’t think Stanford’s offensive line is going to take a huge hit with its depth as formidable as it is, but this could be worrisome for a defensive line that has looked questionable as of late. Starting defensive end Henry Anderson is still out due to injury and end Ben Gardner is still nursing his arm. Nose tackle David Parry really hasn’t had the success clogging the middle that Terrence Stephens had last year, either.

Teams have been able to move the ball well on Stanford’s defense all year and have just been kept out of the end zone on a few big plays by the defense. But this time around, especially with the defensive line situation the way it is, I think Hundley will be able to find holes and put points up. And on the offensive side, I just don’t know how Kevin Hogan will bounce back from his first career loss. He has the steely, unfazed facade, but will that translate to the field on Saturday? We’ll have to wait and see. What’s your final prediction?

AE: Around this UCLA team, I get the sense that the non-freshmen believe the Pac-12 Championship game got away from them. Some, like linebacker Anthony Barr, indirectly point to it, saying how a game between two top-25 teams with Rose Bowl aspirations requires no additional motivation. Others, including defensive tackle Seali’i Epenesa, said they think about that Stanford game all the time. Without left tackle Torian White and with some improvisation on the part of offensive line coach Adrian Klemm to keep five healthy bodies on the field, I think UCLA’s offensive line will have its struggles, even against a Stanford front that’s been more porous of late. I think the Bruins will inch closer to finally toppling Stanford by reaching overtime, but eventually lose 31-28 courtesy of a Jordan Williamson field goal.

Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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The Daily Sports Staff is the collective moniker of an overworked, beleaguered, underpaid collection of sportswriters that feel comfortable enough with their own self-identities to give up any sense of individualism for the good of the sports section. To contact The Daily Sports Staff, send an email to awesthem 'at' stanford.edu to reach Ashley Westhem, keeper of the souls of those sportswriters.