There’s no question that this week’s game against Stanford is a big game. The game is ESPN’s Saturday night primetime game on ABC.
UCLA is looking to break an eight-game losing streak to Stanford, but the Cardinal no longer have QB Kevin Hogan or some of the other pieces that they had last season when they won the Pac-12.
We decided to go behind enemy lines to learn some more about this year’s Stanford team and Rule of Tree contributor randalthor gives us the scoop on this year’s Cardinal team.
BN: How do you feel about their new quarterback? Is he going to fill Hogan's shoes in the long run?
randalthor: David Shaw announced that junior Ryan Burns would take over as the starting QB late in fall camp, after a hard-fought battle between Burns and sophomore Keller Chryst. Both Burns and Chryst are big and athletic, and both were highly touted recruits. Both have strong arms, both can run well, and neither shies away from contact. I think some Stanford fans thought Chryst was more talented and more dynamic, so they were a little surprised and a little disappointed to see Burns as the starter.
It’s undeniable, though, that Shaw’s choice has worked well so far. No quarterback is going to put up monster numbers in Stanford’s run-first offense (even Andrew Luck didn’t). So Burns hasn’t put up huge numbers, but he’s mostly kept the offense rolling, converted third downs, and made plays when he’s needed to. I think Burns is a better athlete than Hogan; whether he continues to be successful as Stanford’s signal-caller depends on how well he masters the team’s complex offense. Based on what we’ve seen so far, I’m confident he’ll be able to do that. His decision-making has mostly been good, his passes have mostly been on the mark, and he’s made some impressive throws into tight windows. The most worrying throw of Burns’s young career was last weekend against USC, when he badly overthrew a wide open Christian McCaffrey for what would have been a sure touchdown.
BN: Besides McCaffrey, what else should folks look for on their offense?
randalthor: Keep an eye out for running back Bryce Love, a true sophomore and another back in McCaffrey’s mold (quick but strong, great at setting up blocks, able to catch the ball as well as run it). It’s a tough draw for the defense when both McCaffrey and Love are on the field, because you have to respect both of them. You’ll also likely see redshirt freshman Cameron Scarlett out of the backfield a couple times.
Wide receiver Michael Rector is always a threat, and he’s great at stretching the field. Last week, Stanford ran a brilliant play in which Burns faked a handoff to McCaffrey to the right, only to give the ball to Rector cutting back to the left. The USC defense bit on the fake (how could they not?), and Rector scrambled 56 yards to paydirt, breaking a tackle along the way. UCLA fans should remember wide receiver Francis Owusu, who made a spectacular catch last year on Jaleel Wadood’s back. Trent Irwin is a third Stanford wideout who’ll see some action on Saturday.
Of course, Stanford wouldn’t be Stanford without its tight ends. Keep an eye out for the extremely talented Dalton Schultz and very reliable Greg Taboada.
BN: Let’s talk about the defense. What unit on the defense is the strongest?
randalthor: The secondary is Stanford’s strongest defensive unit, which is a significant change from years past (when a strong front seven was typically Stanford’s defensive strength). Last year, the secondary was young and raw, but long on pure ability. This year, that natural ability returns, and it’s more experienced. Shutdown corners Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder are joined by talented safeties Dallas Lloyd and Justin Reid. The unit is also very deep: expect to see Alameen Murphy and Terrence Alexander rotate in at corner, and Zach Hoffpauir at strong safety.
BN: Which player should Bruin fans be most concerned about on defense?
randalthor: I’d be worried about redshirt sophomore defensive end Solomon Thomas. He’s the anchor of Stanford’s defensive line and a physical freak who seems to move way too quickly for his size. As a lineman, he doesn’t put up insane numbers, but he constantly draws double teams and frees up space for the rest of Stanford’s front seven. If Thomas is beating UCLA’s offensive line, expect the rest of the Stanford defense to party in the backfield.
BN: What is your biggest concern about this year’s team? Where is the team weakest?
randalthor: I had two major concerns going into this season: the offensive line (which lost three very talented starters) and the defensive front seven (which lost some fantastic linebackers and two starters from a very thin defensive line). The offensive line concerns have been mostly assuaged: Stanford’s history of strong recruiting along the offensive line has proved invaluable. The line has done a good job protecting Burns and opening holes for McCaffrey and Love. Against USC, Stanford lined up under center 37 times. Thirty-six of those were running plays. The USC defense knew Stanford was going to run on those plays and stacked the box, averaging 8 in the box. Stanford still averaged 6.1 yards per rush on those 36 plays. Chris Fowler called that statistic "absurd." That’s the sign of a good offensive line. Equally important, the offensive line has mostly avoided the drive-killing penalties we’ve seen the past few times Stanford has had to break in multiple new starters. Stanford fans will look for that trend to continue, and for the line to improve as the new starters get the hang of things.
The front seven has been pretty good, too. Against Kansas state, it produced eight sacks, four QB hits, and 19 hurries. But it looked significantly weaker against USC’s (admittedly very good) offensive line. Ronald Jones and Justin Davis ripped off some pretty long runs last week, but USC (thankfully and inexplicably) seemed to move away from the power running game as soon as it started gaining traction. Stanford was missing starting defensive tackle Harrison Phillips last week, who was out with an injury, but he’s expected to be back for the UCLA game. I’m hopeful that, with Phillips back in the lineup, the front seven will have success this week against UCLA’s somewhat questionable offensive line.
Thanks to randalthor for answering our questions about Stanford! You can find more info about Stanford at Rule of Tree, SB Nation’s Stanford community, including a Q&A about UCLA where the Bruins Nation team answers their questions.