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UCLA Football 2018 Opponent Preview: Stanford Cardinal

The Cardinal are once again dark horses in the conference.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Stanford vs Texas Christian Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the UCLA Bruins’ 2018 football season! Each week, we will be taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and make a bold prediction regarding the outcome.

This week, we take a look at UCLA’s Week 12 opponent: the Stanford Cardinal.

Last Year

Welcome to 2017, where a five-loss season is considered a disappointment for Stanford.

To be fair, the Cardinal were all over the map last year. They were able to notch wins against two top 10 S&P+ teams in Washington and Notre Dame, but also had road losses to San Diego State and Washington State. If the defense showed up, then the offense was bound to disappear and, if the defense went M.I.A., the offense was more than willing to get into a shootout. The Stanford defense had an issue with allowing long drives, while the Stanford offense had an issue where they refused to drive at all.

Really, the takeaway from 2017 is that this was a Stanford team that, for once, looked mortal. Maybe that’s why the loss to Stanford signaled the end of the Mora era more than anything else — against a Stanford team that had lost 2 of their first 3 games, the Bruins immediately rolled over and looked like they had no idea what Stanford was going to do. Something tells me this year’s Bruins won’t have that problem.

Offensive Outlook

Normally, I start the offensive outlook by talking about quarterbacks, since they’re usually critical to a team’s success, but this is Stanford. So, we have to start out by talking about Bryce Love. The uncrowned Heisman candidate chose to return for his senior season and will once again be the focal point of the Cardinal attack after rushing for 2118 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. Interestingly enough, Love has yet to prove he’s much of a threat coming out of the backfield, having only caught 29 passes over 3 years (and only 6 last year), but he’s plenty electric without that facet of his game. The question will be if the rest of the Stanford offense can do enough to support him.

Which leads us to the issue of quarterback. Keller Chryst was all set up to have a great 2017 after coming in midway through 2016 and lighting the world on fire, except for the fact that life is sometimes cruel. Chryst was injured for part of the year and, when he wasn’t injured he was just plain bad. Eventually, he lost the job to K.J. Costello before transferring to Tennessee. Now, the job belongs to Costello, who will look to continue his stellar play to close out 2017 (he averaged a 147.6 passer rating in the last five games of the season, including the wins over Washington and Notre Dame). A regression from Costello would leave the Cardinal back at square one.

Luckily for Costello, he’ll have some familiar faces to work with in the passing game. The Cardinal’s top 4 receivers from last year return and will add some new faces, including redshirt freshman Osiris St. Brown. And the Stanford offensive line remains as strong as ever, returning four All-Pac-12 honorees.

Maybe the biggest question for the Cardinal offense will be how they adapt to a new coordinator. Former offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren left at the end of last year to take over as the head coach at Rice. So, David Shaw promoted Tevita Pritchard from QB/WR coach. You may remember Pritchard as the Stanford quarterback who helped engineer one of the biggest upsets in college football history when the Cardinal beat the Trojans in 2007. Pritchard is familiar with the Stanford system though, having also coached at the school since 2010. I would not expect much to change, especially since David Shaw, a former OC himself, is still in charge, but it is still something to keep an eye on.

Defensive Outlook

On the one hand, Stanford’s offense should have been better considering the talent available. On the other hand, Stanford’s offensive performance last year wasn’t that out of the ordinary and, really, did not contribute meaningfully to the disappointment of last year.

No, where the problems really showed up was on the defensive end.

The Cardinal defense fell off last year, dropping from a defensive S&P+ ranking of 18th in 2016 to 59th in 2017. Yes, they lost some major contributors, including #2 pick Solomon Thomas, but, theoretically, the Cardinal should have had the talent waiting in the wings to make the regression softer. This was beyond regression.

Stanford’s problem was twofold. The first problem was their efficiency took a nose-dive. Opposing teams found themselves with the rare ability to repeatedly drive on the Cardinal defense, which is usually great at limiting teams to 3 downs and a punt. At the same time, the Cardinal gave up a host of big plays on passing downs, having one of the worst IsoPPP (a measurement of how big your big plays are) rankings on passing downs in the nation. That’s a rough combination and it speaks to the general talent level of the Cardinal that things weren’t worse.

It probably helped that Stanford remained one of the best field position teams in the nation. So, even if you were able to drive on the Cardinal, you were consistently starting your drives inside the 20-yard line. But the underlying numbers and returning personnel don’t scream that a huge turnaround is in the works.

Theoretically, things should be better just due to experience, but the line lost two of its top four producers from last year. That includes Harrison Phillips, who replicated Solomon Thomas’s production last year. So, the Cardinal will need to find a new player to step up. If the Cardinal actually suffer some bad injury luck for once (again, last year’s regression was weird), the line could be woefully thin.

Similar thoughts exist at the other levels of the defense. Sean Barton and the rest of the inside linebackers are back, but the Cardinal need to replace both outside linebackers and any injuries again would make things really thin in a hurry. In the secondary, play-making safety Justin Reid has gone to the NFL. While cornerback Alijah Holder is back from injury, it’s hard to trust a player who’s missed 13 games in just two years to remain healthy. The fact that he’s the biggest play-maker left in the secondary doesn’t help either, which is not to say that this group lacks ability, but it could be closer to steady competence rather than standout excellence.

Bold Prediction

Here’s the thing: I know it’s a new coaching staff and they should get the benefit of the doubt, but this is still UCLA-Stanford David Shaw has had Chip Kelly’s number a handful of times. Until proven otherwise, I still can’t pick UCLA to win this game. Sorry, everyone.

Stanford wins, 24-20.

Go Bruins!