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Behind enemy lines: UCLA Bruins

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As No. 7 Stanford prepares for its first roadtrip to take on perennial rival UCLA, The Daily’s Vihan Lakshman asked Daily Bruin senior football writer Matt Cummings a few questions about UCLA’s performance so far this season and how it plans to limit the Cardinal offense. 

 

The Stanford Daily (TSD): The Bruins have dropped their last eight contests with Stanford, going back to the 2009 season. Is the losing streak on the minds of the UCLA players and coaches, and how does it factor into the team’s preparations for this game?

Matt Cummings (MC): If you believe what the players and coaches say to the media, the eight-game losing streak is not on their minds. At the very least, they’re trying to shrug it off. The mantra seems to be that while Stanford has beaten UCLA eight straight times, the Cardinal haven’t beaten “this team.” In reality, even if the struggles against Stanford don’t influence the preparations this week, they had a major influence on the entire offseason program for UCLA, which focused on getting bigger to prepare for physical opponents.

Not only did seemingly every player pack on 10-20 pounds, the team also shifted to heavier packages on both sides of the ball. The defense has gone from a 3-4 base to a 4-3, and the offense, under new coordinator Kennedy Polamalu, has implemented more pro-style tactics and now employs at least one tight end on nearly every snap. With all the changes, perhaps the Bruins are well-justified in pointing out that the Cardinal haven’t beaten “this team.”

TSD: How would you assess the performance of UCLA’s defense last week in a 17-14 win over BYU? Which players on that side of the ball will be the most critical for the Bruins to have success against Stanford?

MC: The defense was tremendous against BYU, especially in the run game. The Bruins held the dangerous Cougar rushing attack to just 23 yards, the fewest by a UCLA opponent since 2008. It was refreshing to see after the coaching staff harped all offseason on the team’s newfound commitment to stopping the run. Every player in the front seven seemed to have a better grasp of the new system than in weeks past.

The performance also demonstrated the enormous impact of star defensive linemen Takkarist McKinley and Eddie Vanderdoes, who were sidelined as UCLA gave up 21 points to Mountain West-foe UNLV the previous week. McKinley’s exceptional speed from the defensive end position will be integral in UCLA’s quest to stop Christian McCaffrey.

Safety Jaleel Wadood, also absent against UNLV, is a helpful piece as well because his speed and instincts help the Bruins contain runs to the edge.

Most importantly, perhaps, is weak-side linebacker Jayon Brown. Playing with an exciting, attacking style against the run, Brown put on a dominant display against BYU and figures to be crucial in keeping McCaffrey contained.

TSD: How has the offense handled the transition to a pro-style attack this offseason? How will that change impact Saturday’s matchup?

MC: Interestingly enough, the most important effect of the shift to a pro-style offense might be on the defensive side of the ball for the Bruins. The defense, long accustomed to facing the four-wide RPO-heavy offense UCLA ran in previous years, cut its teeth throughout the preseason against bulkier personnel packages that more resemble what Stanford will roll out on Saturday.

Offensively, the Bruins have lined up in shotgun more as the season has progressed, likely to help Josh Rosen read the defense more comfortably. Even with the addition of more shotgun looks, UCLA still trots out a tight end on almost every down and often adds a fullback as well. That inherently affects the way the Bruins play, but the tight end position — projected to contribute heavily to the air attack — has hardly factored into the passing game at all.

With Rosen flanked by an inexperienced group of wideouts, establishing the run game is as important as ever, and the bulked-up personnel should theoretically help achieve that goal. But BYU’s physical front seven exposed blocking deficiencies throughout the unit, holding UCLA to just 1.5 yards per carry. If the Bruins hope to win on Saturday, they’ll need to do better on the ground.

TSD: Quarterback Josh Rosen has received a lot of attention for his outspoken nature. What is the perception of Rosen amongst students in Westwood, and what will he need to do to guide his team to a victory?

MC: It’s funny — one could argue Rosen is more of a star across the nation than he is on his own campus. In part because the Rose Bowl is an hour away from Westwood, football games are not the quintessential college-defining experience that they might be at other schools, so a decent portion of the student body couldn’t care less who Rosen is. Add in his potentially off-putting brand of confidence, and Rosen is far from being perceived with the reverence that is often ascribed to star quarterbacks at other programs. On the field, though, he’s a brilliant talent with a prodigious mind. He’s been handed a lot of responsibility in UCLA’s new offense, and his ability to handle all the moving pieces will be crucial in putting up a fight against Stanford. Rosen is also always a threat to uncork a spectacular NFL-level throw — a few of those might help on Saturday.

TSD: How do you see this one playing out in Pasadena, and who do you have coming out on top?

MC: I’d be surprised if this is the type of blowout the Cardinal recorded last year, but it would probably take a near-perfect game from the Bruins to come away with a victory. Sure, UCLA is as well-prepared as ever to handle Stanford’s physicality, but that hardly means the Bruins will be able to slow down No. 5. I’d probably put the over-under on McCaffrey touchdowns at 2.5, which means Rosen may need to play the best game of his career for UCLA to win. That’s not out of the question, but it’s not something I would bet on.

 

Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu and Matt Cummings at mbcummings ‘at’ dailybruin.com.

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Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at' stanford.edu