Stanford football finally comes home on Saturday, after starting the season with three straight road games, to play UCLA. The Daily’s Matthew Gutwald, Ariana Rollins and Jose Saldana discuss how the defense can be better against the Bruins, what Bryce Love can do to get in the Heisman conversation and what the offense needs to do to be successful on Saturday.
Going into the season, the Stanford secondary was heralded as one of the best in the nation. The last two quarterbacks they’ve faced, however, have had a combined 76% completion rate and 505 yards through the air. What adjustments do the secondary and/or Stanford defense as a whole need to make to slow down prolific UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, who leads the FBS in passing yards?
Matthew Gutwald (MG): The Stanford secondary is famous for its “bend not break” defense. This style of play prevents the big play and helps make the game four quarters long (traditionally favoring Stanford). Playing this style of defense requires the presence of a strong pass rush to prevent the quarterback from running through his progression and hitting his check down for short gains, setting up unwinnable third-and-short situations. A lack of a consistent pass rush has allowed for lots of short passes that lead to this high completion percentage. It will be essential for the corners to press receivers to throw off the timing between Rosen and his receivers.
Ariana Rollins (AR): To add to what Matthew said, I think part of the problem, especially against San Diego State, is that the defense had obviously been prepped to expect a run-heavy game from its opponents. When we set up to counter the run, it makes it easier for that sort of completion rate to happen, especially if we don’t put much pressure on the quarterback. My hope is that in this game we figure out how to balance the defense (like most good teams) and that we work on our tackling past the line of scrimmage.
Jose Saldana (JS): Against USC, the Cardinal couldn’t generate much pass rush which forced the secondary to chase around talented wide receivers such as Deontay Burnett and gave quarterback Sam Darnold time to find the open man easily. And against San Diego State, the defense was focusing on stopping running back Rashaad Penny which allowed quarterback Christian Chapman to be a solid game manager. The biggest problem with pass coverage has been the defensive line but it’s also been about how much the secondary has to be on the field. Stanford had a lower time of possession against both the Trojans and the Aztecs — who had 41 minutes of possession! The secondary needs time to rest, so a combination of an offense that could put drives together and a more consistent pass rush could help against Josh Rosen.
Bryce Love is currently 2nd in the nation in rushing yards, averaging an astonishing 12.2 yards per carry. Despite these numbers, David Shaw has only been calling his number about 14 times per game. Will Love get more touches against a UCLA rush defense that ranks 123rd in the country and what needs to happen in the next few weeks for Love to become a bigger part of the Heisman conversation?
MG: We cannot chalk Love’s success up to the offensive line. Bryce has been a home run hitter on offense, consistently getting loose for 50+ yard runs. While Love has taken advantage of every well blocked play while he has had the ball, sustainability is key. You have to realize his yardage is not coming in six or seven yard chunks that we are used to but that he is frequently tackled for a gain of one or two or no gain at all. The looks are just not there for him to be able to get more carries and this is in no way his fault. For Love to get more carries, we will need to see a healthy increase in production from the offensive line.
AR: Truly, our offensive line has been less-than-stellar thus far, both in terms of protecting the pocket and in making holes for Love. His performance thus far speaks to his ability to make plays more than anything else, and with any luck that ability will help him improve, whether or not the O-line does. That being said, while it’d be easy to “pull a McCaffrey” and just give Love the ball 30 times a game, we then run the risk of overworking our running back, like last year. A touch of moderation is key, but I’m excited to see what he’ll do against UCLA’s defense.
JS: Love doesn’t get many carries because the opposing defense knows what Stanford is going to do when he is on the field and that’s run the ball. Love cannot pass block very well and coach Shaw hasn’t shown that he will utilize Love on passing routes. On first down, Shaw loves to run the ball but every opposing coach knows his strategy. This means Love will take the first carry for a little-to-no gain which usually forces Stanford to pass on second and third down. However, against a bad UCLA run defense, which has given up 277 rushing yards a game, Love should be given every opportunity for touches. One well-placed block could mean dancing the end zone for Love.
In order for Love to be in the Heisman conversation, he needs to be on the field on passing situations (pass block better), a more creative offense on the early downs and he needs to churn out yardage after contact. Honestly, he won’t win the Heisman simply because he is a Stanford running back and in the Pac-12.
Stanford football has prided itself for years on grinding down opponents on the ground, controlling the ball for most of the game, and keeping their defense on the sideline. The Cardinal have lost the battle for possession their last two games, and shockingly let San Diego State control the ball for 41:14 last Saturday. Also, nearly 60% of Stanford’s total offensive production came on just three Bryce Love runs in San Diego. What can offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren and the rest of the Cardinal do to get the Stanford offense looking like a Stanford offense again?
MG: Get creative! How many times have we seen the same plays on third and short that have just not worked. One thing I will be harping on for the entire season is the use of our tight ends. Just two passes to the group against San Diego State is unreasonable when we arguably have one of the best groups in the nation. Short passes in the middle of the field are great for setting up third and manageable situations and even third down conversions. Not only will it help third down conversion, but will open up the box for a better ground game on first and second downs. We are #TightEndU after all, right?
AR: We. Need. To. Convert. On. Third. Downs. It is insane that we didn’t get a first down during the entire first quarter of our last game. Our team runs very well on momentum, and it’s hard to do that when you keep punting. It doesn’t matter how we do it, be it working on short passes that gain us a couple of yards, changing up which run plays we run, or diversifying our playbook overall, the main thing Stanford can do to go back to being Stanford is to get those chains moving again.
JS: I agree with Ariana that Stanford needs to convert third downs instead of solely relying lighting-quick scores from Bryce Love. Like I mentioned in my response to an earlier question, the Cardinal need to be better on the early downs. It’s hard enough for any team to convert on third-and-long but especially so with a Stanford team that can’t convert when facing pressure. Stanford has criminally underused the talented wide receivers and tight ends on the team. Why aren’t the Cardinal using quick-developing plays? Even if it’s only for 3-4 yards at least they get closer to first down then with an incompletion or a sack and let the receivers make plays. Why isn’t Love used in the passing game? Against zone coverage, Stanford should send Love to the flats and if he isn’t covered, throw it to him every time! Obviously, Bloomgren knows more than I do at running an offense, but when I have to see Stanford running a stretch play on 3rd-and-5 down 11 points against USC, I start questioning the efficacy of the coaches on offense.
Contact Matthew Gutwald at mgutwald ‘at’ stanford.edu, Ariana Rollins at arianar ‘at’ stanford.edu and Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.