When No. 7 Stanford (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12) faced UCLA (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12) last season, the Cardinal offense had already hit its stride, but that 56-35 rout proved to be the unit’s magnum opus: Kevin Hogan tossed 3 touchdowns and completed an unprecedented fifth win over a single opponent, Francis Owusu made the catch of the year and Christian McCaffrey — behind a school-record 243 yards rushing — became Christian McCaffrey.
As the Cardinal prepare for their first road trip of the season in Pasadena, a hungry UCLA team that has dropped its last eight meetings with Stanford awaits. During the offseason, the Bruins made eliminating stretches of McCaffrey-esque domination a top priority, and the results have borne fruit thus far. Against BYU in Week 3, Jim Mora’s crew held the Cougars to just 25 rushing yards on 23 carries, flashing the dominant run defense they worked so hard to cultivate over the summer.
Now the Bruins and their newfound ground-stuffing abilities will face their most intriguing challenge, as they again line up against the player that forced them to look into the mirror that October night and demand improvement. It will be an opportunity for UCLA to flip the script on last year’s beatdown and throw that monkey of a losing streak off its back.
According to Stanford head coach David Shaw, when it comes to slowing down the Cardinal, the Bruins have the pieces to make it happen.
“The guy that makes the difference [is] Eddie Vanderdoes,” Shaw said. “They missed him last year and now, combine him with the other guys, and they’ve got size inside and length athleticism outside … they’ve got guys that are active and get off blocks.”
“It’s going to be a challenge for us up front,” Shaw continued. “We made some progress from Week 1 to Week 2, and I think we’ve got to make some more. They’re intent now on stopping the run … It’s going to be a challenge to run the ball efficiently, because that’s going to be our goal.”
Last season, the Bruins entered their matchup with Stanford decimated by injuries, missing Vanderdoes and star linebacker Myles Jack, among others. This time around, a healthy Vanderdoes will enter the fray, joined by a talented cast of Bruins defenders, including do-everything senior linebacker Jayon Brown, who leads the team with 23 tackles, junior tackle Eli Ankou and junior linebacker Kenny Young.
“It’s an incredible defense,” McCaffrey said. “They’re extremely athletic. They play hard and have talent all over the place … It’s going to be a tough challenge. We’re definitely up for it, but [we have] a lot of respect for the way those guys play, on defense especially.”
For the Cardinal, a heavy dose of running the football — with McCaffrey leading the way — will again be an emphasis. The 2015 Heisman runner-up has accounted for over 70 percent of Stanford’s rushing yards this season while also leading the team in receptions in the first two games. Shaw also noted that sophomore running back Bryce Love experienced no setbacks after returning to game action against USC. He will again complement McCaffrey in the backfield as the Cardinal look to establish the ground game and ease first-year starting quarterback Ryan Burns into his inaugural road appearance.
Offensively, the Bruins are also in the midst of a transition that began in the offseason, switching from a spread scheme to a more traditional pro-style attack. Shaw noted that the schematic shift will change the Cardinal’s tactical game-planning ahead of Saturday but downplayed the impact of the Bruins’ new-look offense in determining the outcome of the game.
“[UCLA’s offense] is different,” Shaw observed. “It’s kind of its own offense, where there are still some spread principles but also some other principles …They have a lot more things that are more traditional. But it’s still football. There are still 11 guys out there, and the focus has to be on us.”
Headlining the Bruins’ attack is sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen, who has completed 75 passes on 124 attempts for 917 yards with 4 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Rosen’s 2016 campaign has consisted of both statistical brilliance and moments of shakiness, much like the Bruins, who dropped their season opener to Texas A&M before rebounding with a win over UNLV and scraping by BYU 17-14 last Saturday.
Against Stanford, the Bruins will be looking for a peak performance from Rosen as well as from his supporting cast, especially receivers Darren Andrews and Kenneth Walker, who emerged as top targets for the sophomore superstar in Provo. The Bruins’ receivers, in conjunction with Rosen, have especially caught the eye of Shaw.
“I think they’ve got a solid receiving corps. A very good receiving corps,” Shaw noted. “The biggest thing is being disciplined, and you can’t be one of those guys that just relies on the quarterback’s eyes. Josh is one of those guys that can look to his left and then throw a strike to the right.”
In the running game, UCLA features a talented trio of backs and will get a boost with the return of sophomore running back Soso Jamabo, who missed last week’s game for undisclosed reasons. He will be joined in the backfield by Nate Starks and Bolu Olorunfunmi, who together have accumulated 303 yards on the ground, with Jamabo leading the way with 5.72 yards per carry.
In gearing up to stop UCLA’s potent offense, Stanford will be aided by the likely return of junior defensive lineman Harrison Phillips, who looks on track to play Saturday.
In defending Rosen and the Bruins’ aerial attack, Stanford will also benefit from the emergence of sophomore safety Ben Edwards, who has come on strong in the last two weeks of practice to earn a spot in the rotation alongside Dallas Lloyd, Zach Hoffpauir and Justin Reid.
“Coming out of high school, [Edwards] was one of the top safeties in America,” Shaw said. “We have a lot in our scheme. There’s a lot of communication and a lot things our safeties are responsible [for], both for them and for others. I give him all the credit in the world. Ben’s been very diligent in his study … I think his ceiling is very high, and I think those four give us a very good rotation of safeties.”
Stanford and UCLA will continue their longstanding rivalry this Saturday at the Rose Bowl, kicking off at 5 p.m. The game will be televised on ABC.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.