By Jose Saldana
Stanford football has a welcome reprieve from the road after beginning the season with three straight games away from home.
The Cardinal (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) play their first home game against UCLA (2-1, 0-0) on Saturday in Stanford Stadium.
After a 62-7 beatdown of Rice in Sydney, Australia, expectations were high for Stanford against a talented USC team. Stanford was dominated on both sides of the ball and was surprisingly beat up in the trenches. The team lost 42-24, but a defeat at the hands of the Trojans on the road didn’t deter many to lose confidence in the Cardinal as they were still ranked after the game.
Then, the Cardinal lost to San Diego State 20-17 last Saturday in Qualcomm Stadium.
The Aztecs are a solid team (and are now ranked 22 in the AP Top 25 Poll), but the game Stanford played was uncharacteristic of the team identity that has been established under head coach David Shaw.
Time of possession has typically been a key element in Stanford’s game plan. The Cardinal offense would use the running game and efficient passing to keep the opposing offense off the field and tire out the defense.
But against San Diego State, Stanford had the ball on offense for only 19 minutes. That number alone shows the offense’s inability to move the ball — not to mention the fact it was only able to convert three of 11 third downs in the game.
The quick three-and-outs forced the Stanford defense to be out there for too long. The defense did a great job limiting the Aztecs offense even with premier running back Rashaad Penny. However, the defense eventually broke in the fourth quarter when the Aztecs scored the game-winning touchdown with under a minute remaining.
Against the high-powered UCLA offense, this simply cannot happen.
The Bruins have averaged 48.7 points-per-game and are led by quarterback Josh Rosen, who is number one in passing yards (1,283) and passing touchdowns (13) in the nation. The defense will undoubtedly have trouble if it has to be on the field for 40 minutes this game.
The offense has to be better in order to keep UCLA’s offense off the field, and it starts with senior quarterback Keller Chryst. Chryst struggled throwing the ball and with his mobility in the pocket last Saturday, as he ended the game 9-20 for 72 passing yards and two interceptions.
Even after the subpar performance his signal caller had, coach Shaw has confidence in Chryst’s ability.
“He went back to work last night and looked great,” Shaw said of Chryst. “I know the kid’s mind is right where it needs to be. I think he’s determined to come out and play a great game.”
“I believe we have a quarterback who can take advantage of the guys we have outside.”
The guys on the outside Shaw was referring to include wide receivers junior Trenton Irwin and freshman Connor Wedington. Wedington made a splash in first collegiate game against Rice when he had six catches for 82 yards but only has 37 receiving yards since that game.
Irwin, who is number one on the depth chart, hasn’t had many chances to make the impact many thought he would have. He is averaging only 37.7 receiving yards per game and hasn’t recorded a touchdown, but that isn’t discouraging Irwin against the Bruins.
“I think they are going to challenge us,” Irwin said of the Bruins. “We haven’t put great stuff on tape, but I think as a group, we can get the job done.”
Junior running back Bryce Love has put great stuff on tape by averaging 174 rushing yards per game and 12.2 yards per carry. He must be salivating at the idea of running against a poor Bruins defense that has given up over 38.3 points per game and 277 rushing yards per game.
He has reached triple-digits on rushing yards in the five career games he has started and has a rushing touchdown of over 50 yards in every game this season.
Love should have a huge day against the Bruins.
The Stanford offensive line has allowed a ton of pressure on Chryst in the games against the Trojans and the Aztecs. Coach Shaw shuffled the line after losing to USC. Everyone but senior center Jesse Burkett moved positions, and notably, freshman Walker Little started at left tackle against the Aztecs.
Even after giving up four sacks to San Diego State, Shaw saw an improvement in the offensive line.
“Good, not great,” Shaw said of the offensive line’s performance against the Aztecs. “But positive. Walker Little is off to a good start and was impressive. Across the board, they all seemed comfortable.”
The defense showed improvement against San Diego State and will try to carry that momentum against the high-octane UCLA offense. Senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips had 10 tackles, one sack and one tackle for loss. Phillips is essential in breaking through a UCLA offensive line that allowed 11 tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries in the Bruins loss to Memphis.
Stanford has beaten UCLA in nine consecutive games dating back to 2008, but the Cardinal can’t expect to have the Bruins number this time.
Last season, Stanford finished a dramatic comeback over UCLA. Trailing 13-9, Stanford quarterback Ryan Burns threw a high-arcing pass to wide receiver and then-sophomore J.J. Arcega-Whiteside to the left end of the end zone for the game-winning score.
The Cardinal hope for a little home cooking as they host UCLA on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN.
Contact Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.