It’s pretty safe to say that there’s no love lost between UCLA and Stanford right now — particularly on the side of the boys from Westwood. Simply put, Stanford has been the biggest thorn in UCLA’s side on its quest for Pac-12 elite status — most recently last season, when an unranked Stanford upset a top-10 UCLA squad at the Rose Bowl to knock the Bruins out of the Pac-12 Championship.
There’s just something about UCLA that brings out the best in the Stanford Cardinal every season, and the saga will continue on Thursday night when the No. 18 Bruins (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) visit the No. 15 Cardinal (4-1, 3-0) in a blockbuster matchup, with a seven-game winning streak in the series at stake for Stanford.
That active seven-game winning streak is the longest by either side in series history, and the string of losses has been even more painful for the Bruins because Stanford represents the final barrier that UCLA has simply been unable to overcome over the last six years — and to the Bruins, a win over Stanford would perhaps represent finally getting over the hump that’s held them back for so long.
To the Cardinal, though, it’s just business as usual. For a Stanford team that’s firing on all cylinders, Thursday just represents another opportunity to stay undefeated in conference play — making it eight straight against UCLA would just be icing on the cake.
“There’s a slight sense of confidence, but what we build off more is what we’ve done this year as a unit as opposed to wins in the past,” said senior guard Johnny Caspers. “They have different teams, different guys lining up against us. It is in the back of your head, but it’s not what defines the confidence you pull from.”
“We’re 0-0 against them this year,” added senior safety Kodi Whitfield. “Those past seven games, they’re in the past, and they have nothing to do with this upcoming game. They’re a great team ranked really high, and they do a lot of great things on offense and defense. This game’s going to be a special one.”
Caspers’ confidence likely comes from the fact that Stanford’s offense is currently playing the best football it has in his entire Stanford career.
The Cardinal have scored over 40 points in three consecutive games for the first time since 2011, when Andrew Luck ran the offense, and Caspers has been right in the middle of the offense’s resurrection.
Stanford has rushed for over 300 yards in its last two games, and improved play from the offensive line has been instrumental in opening holes for Christian McCaffrey and company, which, in turn, has also given fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan more space to work with in the passing game.
“Every week, something we harp on is getting better,” Caspers said. “One thing [offensive coordinator Mike] Bloomgren always mentions is that we have to celebrate each victory but we have to keep improving upon our mistakes.”
UCLA’s defense should offer Stanford’s offensive line a pretty generous margin of error as it looks to keep improving even in the midst of its current stellar stretch of play.
The Bruins’ front seven, which was expected to be one of the most daunting units in the conference going into the season, has suffered from season-ending losses to its two biggest stars in defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes and linebacker Myles Jack.
UCLA’s defense has clearly felt those losses, as its 197 rushing yards given up per game ranks 100th in the nation, and the Bruins have ceded consecutive ugly games of 353 yards on the ground to Arizona and 192 to Arizona State.
That said, UCLA still boasts a lot of talent in its front seven, including skilled nose tackle Kenny Clark, who has 30 tackles so far this season, and linebacker Isaako Savaiinaea, who sits at fourth in the conference with 41 tackles. The two defenders will bear much of the burden of stopping Stanford’s running juggernaut.
“Myles was one of the more explosive linebackers in the nation, but they’ve done a good job of assembling a good football team that’s not just dependent on one guy,” said head coach David Shaw.
The matchup between UCLA’s front seven and Stanford’s running game figures to be the most important of Thursday’s game, as an inability to stop the run would require UCLA to crash its safeties to stop the run, opening up wider passing lanes for a locked-in Hogan.
UCLA’s secondary is also down one of its biggest contributors, with cornerback Fabian Moreau also sidelined for the season with a Lisfranc fracture. That said, led by Ishmael Adams, the Bruins’ defensive backs have actually been great this season, having allowed only 5.2 yards per pass.
With Hogan averaging a remarkable 11.8 yards per completion in conference play, continued success in the running game would go a long way in helping maintain Stanford’s ruthless passing efficiency against a tough secondary.
On the other side of the ball, all eyes will be on UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, who was the only big question mark on the Bruins’ offense going into the season but has since erased any questions about his ability with his polished, efficient passing and his good decision-making, both of which have drawn Shaw’s attention.
“For a young quarterback, he does a really good job of getting the ball out of his hands and not holding onto it; he’ll throw it away when he needs to,” Shaw said. “He’s been very well-schooled.”
“He’s really polished,” Whitfield added. “It’s rare that you see a freshman quarterback do the things that he’s been doing. I really have nothing but praise for him. Part of that is respecting the opponent, but I really love the guy. He has a great arm.”
Rosen currently sits at fifth in the conference with 249 passing yards per game, but his one weakness has been in turnovers: He has 5 interceptions this season against just 9 touchdowns, which is something that a turnover-deficient Stanford defense will hope to exploit on Thursday.
His surrounding cast is loaded with talent as well, with wide receivers Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte leading a skilled pack of targets for Rosen that have helped make the freshman quarterback’s transition to the collegiate game much smoother. He also has the defending Pac-12 leader in rushing, running back Paul Perkins, in the backfield, who Shaw has compared to Stepfan Taylor as a guy for whom “you can’t find anything that he can’t do.”
“Is he quick enough? Yes. Can he run through arm tackles? Yes. Can he make a guy miss? Yes. Can he make big plays? Yes. Can he make guys miss on third and short? Yes,” Shaw said.
Stanford will certainly have its hands full with Perkins, but with a fully healed defensive line that has held USC’s Tre Madden to 64 yards, Oregon State’s Storm Woods to 35 yards and Arizona’s Nick Wilson to just 46 yards, it’s looking like Stanford should be up to the task, especially coming off of a bye week.
“We have a great opportunity to continue to assert our dominance in the conference to prove that we’re a great team,” Whitfield said. “It’s just another step in the direction towards our goal, which is winning that Pac-12 Championship.”
“It’s going to be a packed house,” he added. “I told everyone that they can take off from studying and midterms this week, so they’re all going to be there.”
Stanford and UCLA will kick off at 7:30 p.m., with the game televised on ESPN.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.