As the No. 15 Stanford Cardinal (4-1, 3-0 Pac-12) prepare for No. 18 UCLA (4-1, 1-1), all signs point to the game being a fantastic quarterback duel. For Stanford, fifth-year senior Kevin Hogan will look to continue his historic dominance against UCLA, while Lance Anderson and the Cardinal defense will get their first look at true freshman Josh Rosen. Although he is still coming into his own, Rosen has impressed many early in the season and may prove to be the toughest test for the Stanford defense since USC’s Cody Kessler. What do the Cardinal have to do to limit Rosen’s effectiveness, and what is an important matchup between the Bruins offense and the Cardinal defense?
Sanjay Srinivas: While the Cardinal defense will certainly have to play well against Rosen, Stanford’s ideal strategy may be to keep him off the field altogether. The Cardinal rank third in the nation in time of possession, keeping the ball for 35 minutes per game. Key to Stanford’s stingy ball possession is the resurgence of the running game; Christian McCaffrey and company have averaged over 200 yards per game on just under five yards per carry.
Although Hogan has been fantastic during conference play, running the football and controlling the clock may be particularly effective against a Bruin defense that has lost linebacker Myles Jack and defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes for the season. Without their defensive stars, Arizona and Arizona State ran wild on the Bruins, with the Sun Devils holding the ball for almost 38 minutes in a decisive 38-23 win on Oct. 3.
If the Cardinal run and control the clock like I’d expect them to, Rosen will spend most of his night throwing the ball. Rosen has looked incredibly comfortable dropping back more than 30 times a game, in part because his offensive line has kept a strong pocket for him. UCLA’s offensive line has been one of the conference’s best this season, allowing only 4 sacks and giving Rosen time to break down opposing defenses.
UCLA’s offense and Stanford’s defense are successful due to solid play along the trenches, and their unsung work will likely determine how well Rosen plays on Thursday night.
Neel Ramachandran: Given the ease with which Stanford has been able to move the ball recently, it is easy to forget that the defense, and in particular the secondary, has been largely unproven so far this season. Stanford ranks third in the Pac-12 in pass defense, giving up just under 200 yards per game.
However, keep in mind that in their five games so far, the Cardinal have faced a run-heavy team that hardly threw the ball in Northwestern, a true freshman in Seth Collins at Oregon State and two ineffective backup quarterbacks in UCF and Arizona (sorry, Bo Schneider and Jerrard Randall!).
The secondary’s only “true” test so far came against then-No. 6 USC, and it’s fair to say that it did not pass. Cody Kessler torched the unit, with the senior quarterback completing 78 percent of his passes for 272 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Josh Rosen, although just a freshman, boasts a skillset similar to Kessler’s, and is surrounded by weapons both in the backfield and at the wideout position. Like Sanjay said, it will be difficult to stop Rosen from dropping back, given that UCLA’s veteran offensive line will likely impose itself on Stanford’s slightly banged up front three.
Ideally, the best way to limit Rosen would be to keep him on the sidelines, but if Stanford is unable to do so, the matchup between UCLA receiver Jordan Payton and Stanford cornerback Ronnie Harris will be crucial. Payton is by far Rosen’s favorite target, and is coming off his two best games of the season. Although the wideout has a considerable size advantage, Harris has emerged into a true leader and shutdown No. 1 corner for the Cardinal this season. If the fifth-year senior can take Payton out of the game, the team will have a huge chance to win its eighth straight against the Bruins.
Sandip Srinivas: Rosen is certainly the centerpiece of this offense, and as both Neel and Sanjay mentioned, he’s going to be protected very well. However, in my opinion, what makes this Bruin offense much tougher than the Trojan offense Stanford saw a few weeks ago is UCLA running back Paul Perkins, who already has 593 rushing yards and 7 rushing touchdowns this year.
The reason this matchup is unsettling is that it’s Stanford’s first against a true dual-threat team. In USC, Stanford had to deal with mainly Cody Kessler, as running back Tre Madden had only 9 carries (but still had a good game). Against Arizona, the Cardinal were able to shut down Pac-12 leading rusher Nick Wilson mainly because the injury to Anu Solomon eliminated Arizona’s passing game. The team will have to effectively deal with playmakers both in the air and on the ground to be successful against UCLA.
As for matchups, look for defensive end and Twitter extraordinaire Aziz Shittu to have a big game against the UCLA front line. Shittu is coming off a big game against Arizona and will be instrumental in putting pressure on Rosen.
Contact Sanjay Srinivas at sanjay_srinivas ‘at’ stanford.edu, Neel Ramachandran at neelr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Sandip Srinivas at sandips ‘at’ stanford.edu.