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UCLA-Stanford Preview: Looking at David Shaw and the Cardinal Special Teams

With last Saturday's conference cupcake opponent put down with little-to-no real effort by the Bruins, UCLA will now have a huge test on the road in Palo Alto, taking on a Stanford team that edged them by a FG last year in the same venue to secure the conference title and a spot in the Rose Bowl. With the game coming up quick, we preview the Cardinal, beginning with a look at their coaching staff and their special teams.

Can Mora find a way to finally beat David Shaw?
Can Mora find a way to finally beat David Shaw?
Ezra Shaw

What's your deal?

Actually, the question is how do you replace a coach like Jim Harbaugh, who took a moribund program and turned it into a monstrous machine of smash-mouth football?

It would seem the answer is Harbaugh's former offensive coordinator, now-Stanford head coach David Shaw. Shaw, himself a Stanford man, having played WR for the Cardinal from 1991 to 1994, seems to have picked up right where Harbaugh left off, which isn't a surprise since Shaw's college head coach was none other than the legendary Bill Walsh. Shaw, in his third season as a head coach, has already put together a solid 28-5 record, with the highlight being last year's Pac-12 conference title (over our very own Bruins by a close 27-24 margin) and Rose Bowl win over the Wisconsin Badgers. Oh, and that doesn't mention the fact that he brought the Cardinal to the Fiesta Bowl the prior year, or that his Cardinal were ranked at #5 before last week's upset loss on the road to Utah (told you those Utes were underrated). Shaw maintains the same offensive style left by his predecessor, using a balanced offensive attack, anchored by a hard-nosed running game, which is in turn, led by a big, bruising dominant offensive line. So far, the Cardinal are averaging 404.2 yards of total offense per game, with 199.0 yards on the ground, and the balance (205.2) in the air, putting up 36.2 points per game. The question for Shaw this weekend will be whether his Cardinal defense (surrendering only 22.2 points per game on 379.7 yards of total offense per game) will be able to slow UCLA's high-powered (when they play focused) offense enough to let Stanford's more methodical, traditional offense keep up.

As for the kicking game, formerly inconsistent but experienced kicker Jordan Williamson returns for his senior season, as both the FG man and the kick-off man (averaging 64.1 yards per kick, with 20 touchbacks). The senior specialist is 9 for 12 on field goals for the year, with a solid long of 48 yards (against San Jose State), and he seems to have shook the inconsistency that marked his prior seasons -- only hitting 17 of 27 on FGs in 2012 and 13 of 19 in 2011. Perhaps that's just me being cynical since we were used to Kai "Mr. Consistency" Forbath for all those years, but a close look at Williamson's numbers shows he's hit every FG inside 50 yards, except one, with two coming short from 50+. So, if the Cardinal get within the UCLA 33 yard line (remember, 10 yards for the end zone, 7 for the long snap), expect Williamson to add 3 to Stanford's bottom line if the offense sputters. His kicking partner, senior punter Ben Rhyne is seeing his first full season of action, taking over for the graduated Daniel Zychlinski (average of 43.1 yards per punt in 2012), and has given the Cardinal 41.5 yards per punt, putting half of his punts (10/20) inside the 20, with only one touchback. So, don't expect any gifts from the Cardinal kicking or punting game this Saturday. They're not spectacular, but they're going to get the job the Cardinal need done.

In the return game, the Cardinal will rely predominately on their star junior WR Ty Montgomery, who has returned 16 out of 20 for the Cardinal, averaging 37.2 yards per return, and most importantly, posted two touchdowns on kick returns so far this season, including a tone-setting 100 yard return to open the game against Washington (in which he also posted a total of 204 return yards for the game). The dynamic WR isn't just a threat when lined up to receive passes from QB Kevin Hogan, but has shown an ability to break the big one, including against solid teams (like the Huskies), so the Bruins will need to be prepared to face the best return man they've seen so far this year. However, unlike Montgomery, the punt return game for the Cardinal has been less than impressive, with the Cardinal relying on sophomore WR Kodi Whitfield as their primary return man (followed by sophomore RB Barry Sanders Jr.), who is averaging only 6.0 yards per return (although on only 7 returns thus far).

The Bruins will hit the road this weekend, taking on the Cardinal in one of the key games of the season. The Bruins, who came agonizing close to the conference title and a Rose Bowl spot, will return to Palo Alto once again, this time, hoping to escape with a win. Let's see if Mora, Mazzone, and Spanos have finally put the pieces together to slow down Shaw's Kevin Hogan-led offense and unlock a stingy Cardinal defense.