Stanford vs. UCLA preview, Round 2: The right gambles will decide the Pac-12

Stephen Dunn

In Stanford-UCLA I, Stanford's Kevin Hogan used his legs better than UCLA's Brett Hundley, and Stanford took better, more selective risks on defense. Can the Bruins turn the tables in Palo Alto on Friday?

It is rare that you get the opportunity to preview a game that just happened, but here we are, talking about the upcoming UCLA-Stanford game by looking back at last week's UCLA-Stanford game. Here are five observations from the original movie that can help us figure out how the sequel will turn out.

1. Brett Hundley rushed just once.

Not including sacks, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley carried the ball 91 times in the first 11 games of 2012, an average of 8.3 carries per game. A large percentage of these were scrambles in designed pass plays, but a lot were also designed runs. Against Stanford last week in Los Angeles, Hundley carried just once, and that was on a scramble precipitated by strong Stanford pass coverage. It went for 38 yards and set up the second of just two UCLA touchdowns on the day.

As I mentioned in this week's Numerical, perhaps UCLA's biggest problem on Saturday was freeing up star running back Johnathan Franklin. Franklin averaged just 2.9 yards per touch against the fierce Cardinal front seven; most of that had to do with Stanford being a fantastic defensive team, but the Bruins will probably need to utilize their second-best playmaker a bit more if they want to move the ball.


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2. In general, Hundley was flustered.

Well, of course he was. UCLA's offensive line is still rather inexperienced (one true freshman, two redshirt freshmen and a sophomore are among the five starters), and Stanford's defensive front is one of the best in college football. Hundley saw pressure all game long, getting sacked seven times and seeing extensive pressure quite a few other times. He handled it well early on, but he wore down as the game progressed.

On the game's opening drive, facing a third-and-4 from the UCLA 19, Hundley scrambled away from pressure and found Shaquelle Evans open 30 yards downfield. Evans rumbled to the Stanford 10. Two plays later (following a loss by Franklin and a second-down pass getting batted down at the line), Hundley stood in the face of the only six-man rush he faced all game and delivered a touchdown pass to big tight end Joseph Fauria. Success!

Thanks mostly to Evans' catch-and-run, UCLA averaged 14.5 yards per play on the initial drive. The Bruins averaged just 3.8 yards per play after that. By the end of the game, Hundley had been harassed into making some iffy decisions and throwing inaccurately. Of his 18 incompletions or interceptions, five were overthrown passes, two were thrown behind the intended receiver, and one was underthrown. Plus, two were tipped at the line, and, through little fault of Hundley's, an unacceptable four others were dropped. It was a bit of a nightmare scenario for Hundley, and he will need some help to avoid a repeat at Stanford Stadium on Friday.

With fewer drops and better first-down yardage (UCLA averaged 2.8 yards per play on first down, 1.4 if you take out Hundley's 38-yard scramble), the Bruins can keep Hundley a little more comfortable, or at least as comfortable as possible against this Stanford defense.

3. Stanford's pass rush was both perfect and perfectly timed.

On Hundley's first pass attempt of the game, Stanford rushed three defenders. On his second pass, they rushed four. On his third, they rushed five. On his fourth, they rushed six. Their patterns were minimal, and their timing was impeccable. When Stanford rushed just three defenders, Hundley was typically able to make something happen. Twelve of his pass attempts came against three pass rushers, and he completed seven of 11 passes for 91 yards and one sack. Average yards per pass attempt: 7.0.

Average yards per pass attempt when facing four pass rushers: 6.6 (12-for-20 passing for 190 yards, one interception and five sacks for 26 yards).

Average yards per pass attempt when facing five pass rushers: 0.0 (1-for-7 passing for five yards and one sack for five).

One interesting note: of the eight instances where Stanford attacked with five pass rushers, six were on third or fourth down, and four were on third-and-short. Stanford was fantastic at flexing its muscles and blowing up the UCLA line in perceived power situations. UCLA faced seven third-and-short (three yards or fewer) situations and gained a total of nine yards. UCLA actually had MORE success on third-and-long. On third-and-9 or more, Hundley completed six of eight passes for 94 yards, one touchdown and one sack. For a redshirt freshman, Hundley showed solid poise in general. This wasn't a situation where he began to feel pressure that wasn't actually there and made panic throws. He only felt pressure when it actually existed; unfortunately for the Bruins, it existed quite often.

Stanford actually ratcheted up the pressure more the closer UCLA got to moving the chains and typically rushed only three or four on third-and-long. It was an interesting approach. And it clearly worked.

4. UCLA gambled on defense, and it almost worked.

Stanford has made it quite clear that it will lean on Stepfan Taylor and the run game as much as possible. And with the Cardinal defense in its corner, Stanford typically doesn't have to take many chances on the offensive side of the ball. Stanford isn't particularly amazing at running the ball (Rushing S&P+ rank: 59th), but they are incredibly persistent about it. And they know that if they can just get a couple of big runs from Taylor, they will probably win.

UCLA's defense, meanwhile, ranks a reasonably healthy 36th in Rushing S&P+. The Bruins have struggled a bit against the pass and on standard downs, but their general recipe for success is a) stop the run on early downs, and b) get to the passer on passing downs. For the most part, UCLA succeeded in (a) against Stanford, but three runs killed them. Stepfan Taylor carried 20 times against UCLA. On 17 of those carries, he gained just 34 yards, failing to break a single tackle along the way. On the other three, he broke four tackles and gained 108 yards.

UCLA supplemented its front seven by keeping strong safety Andrew Abbott near the line of scrimmage as much as possible (for the game, he had 5.5 tackles, two behind the line of scrimmage), and while this aggressive approach succeeded for a majority of the time, the failures were crippling. Not only was the second level of the defense virtually nonexistent when Taylor did manage to break a tackle, but Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan was devastating on longer passes. Amid the cluster of UCLA defenders, Hogan was a rather awful 8-for-14 for 52 yards on passes thrown within five yards of the line of scrimmage. UCLA snuffed out almost all of Stanford's short game. But on passes thrown further than five yards, however, he was an outstanding 7-for-8 for 108 yards. He was 3-for-3 for 47 yards on passes 15 yards or longer (all to tight end Zach Ertz).

Knowing that it will need to help out its offense by creating some easy scoring opportunities against the Stanford defense, it would probably behoove UCLA to once again crowd the line of scrimmage and force Hogan and Stanford out of their comfort zone as possible. Just because Hogan made it work once doesn't automatically mean he will again.

4. Kevin Hogan made great decisions.

Kevin Hogan was a strong, if regional, recruit in the class of 2011. A high three-star recruit (via Rivals.com) and product of Gonzaga College High School in the D.C. area, Hogan fielded offers mostly from east coast schools like Boston College, Clemson, Rutgers and Maryland. But he chose to move across the country in the hopes of succeeding Andrew Luck instead. Good call. Hogan has started the last three games for the Pac-12 North champions, and he won at Oregon in his second career start. For what Stanford wants to do on offense, Hogan has been pretty much perfect.

Brett Hundley might be the more known rusher of the two quarterbacks in this game, but Hogan's feet helped Stanford more than Hundley's helped UCLA last Saturday. Hogan carried just twice (he gained 25 yards), but his ability to scramble and buy time, even facing a clogged line of scrimmage, was incredibly beneficial. It also allowed him to only take chances downfield if or when they were wide open.

Either via designed bootleg or scramble, Hogan left the pocket to extend a play nine times against UCLA. Those nine plays gained 82 yards, and that includes a six-yard sack. Designed boots off of play-action were wonderfully effective; Hogan completed four of four bootleg passes for 52 yards. He found Ertz for 17 yards, fellow tight end Levine Toilolo for 10, and fullback Ryan Hewitt twice for 25 yards. This is an obvious and effective complement to a persistent running game, and Stanford found selective success with it. But on five other occasions, Hogan scrambled either to buy time against good coverage, to escape pressure, or to take advantage of an open hole in front of him. He found running room twice, found Drew Terrell on an 11-yard pass once, was sacked once, and threw the ball away once. His fight-or-flight instincts were virtually perfect, especially for a young quarterback, and Stanford benefited tremendously because of it.

**********

It probably isn't difficult, then, to figure out the major keys for Friday's rematch in Palo Alto. The team that better takes advantage of its quarterback's mobility will probably win, and the team that takes better gambles on defense will probably win. In the first game, that team was Stanford in both instances.

It isn't out of the realm of possibility, however, that UCLA could turn the tables here. MOST of their defensive gambles worked, and lord knows Hundley can kill you with his legs if you turn your back. Stanford is the obvious favorite, basically, because of that front seven. Along with Alabama's and Notre Dame's, it might be the best in college football.

But if UCLA can force a couple of turnovers (they forced one on Saturday but lost two), create a couple of easy scores, and keep Hundley comfortable early, the Bruins make this one very, very interesting. Pick Stanford, but be prepared to change your mind if UCLA gets hot early.

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