THIS WEEKS’S OPPONENT:
Stanford Cardinal, Rose Bowl – Saturday, November 24, 3:30 p.m., Fox Channel 11
LINE: Stanford by 2
Nobody will deny that for UCLA’s Bruins, beating USC and winning the Pac-12 South Championship – and reclaiming bragging rights to Los Angeles – was an incredible feat, something that Bruin Nation will always remember with ecstatic joy.
But it’s my desperate hope that the team, in particular, has moved on because an opponent that, quite frankly, is better than USC and has just come off an upset of the BCS’s second-ranked team by holding their Speedy Gonzalez-style offense to just 14 points is coming to the Rose Bowl this Saturday, a team that has the best front seven in the Pac-12 if not the country.
The Stanford Cardinal, ranked 8th in the BCS, has impressed all year by playing a throwback, smash-mouth style of football. Except for perhaps Stephan Taylor, their running back who’s been their bread and butter all season with his 1,222 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, there are no big names on the Cardinal roster.
Not that they care about that one bit as coach David Shaw has more that taken up the torch left by Jim Harbaugh, who installed the hard-hat mentality that Stanford has used brilliantly.
And the most impressive thing about the Cardinal’s success, as at 9-2 their record is the same as the Bruins?
They’ve done it without their all-universe quarterback Andrew Luck, who’s in the midst of his rookie season with the Indianapolis Colts; as many have thought that Luck was the biggest reason for Stanford’s prominence and that they would falter without him, the fact that they haven’t is a testament to the fact that the Cardinal is a team in every sense of the word.
After Josh Nunes tried to take Luck’s reigns with moderate success, Kevin Hogan has solidified the position and has essentially succeeded Luck with his 74.2% completion percentage. Zach Ertz has been another huge reason that Stanford has come this far as the finalist for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s best tight end, was the one that caught the tying TD pass against Oregon and sent that game into overtime.
His 58 catches leads the team, and he, as well as Taylor (who’s second in receptions) will be a big concern for the UCLA defense.
It’s Stanford’s defense, however, that poses a threat to Brett Hundley, Johnathan Franklin and the rest of the Bruin offense. led by inside linebacker Shayne Skov and his team-leading 58 tackes and outside linebacker Trent Murphy and his 9.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss, which also leads, check out the numbers posted by this vaunted Stanford unit:
46 sacks and 102 tackles for loss, which outdoes UCLA 40 sacks and 80 TFLs by a decent margin.
Not that the Bruin defense has been soft either (check out Anthony Barr’s hit on Matt Barkley on YouTube sometime); Barr’s 12 sacks and 18 TFLs has given him MVP-like status, and Erik Kendricks 112 tackles, including 55 in the last four games, continue to lead the Pac-12.
But one thing’s for certain: UCLA’s interior lines on both sides of the ball and the Bruin linebackers have to have an outstanding day stopping Taylor and Ertz on one end and containing Stanford’s front seven on the other end, or else all the good feelings generated by the USC victory will disappear, despite the fact that Jim Mora’s squad will be in the Pac-12 Championship Game on November 30 regardless of what happens against the Cardinal.
Being that such is the case, Bruin fans must ask themselves this:
Would you rather go into the Pac-12 title game on a sort of lull or on a roll after beating argualbly the best team in the conference?
I, for one, would MUCH rather go into that title game on an absolute roll as you always want to win every game, no matter what.
And I’ll be praying that UCLA doesn’t suffer a letdown against this Stanford team with that famous scatter band and tree mascot, because if they do, well…
The mere thought of that induces shuddery thoughts in me.