By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: With their national title hopes dwindling, the 13th-ranked Stanford Cardinal will try to make up some ground in a critical matchup with the ninth-ranked UCLA Bruins at Stanford Stadium.
For UCLA, which is ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2005, all signs are pointing up. The Bruins own a 5-0 record after dispatching California last weekend (37-10). It was an impressive victory for the Bruins (5-0) as they held the Pac-12's second-best passing offense to just 210 yards through the air. The last time the Bruins were 5-0 was also in 2005.
Stanford is still reeling from a 27-21 upset loss at Utah last weekend. The setback ended a 13-game winning streak for the Cardinal and also stopped an 11-game winning streak against teams from the Pac-12.
"We had a few sparks early in the game on special teams but not enough, and we can do so much better. Our front seven didn't play well tonight. Some of the pressure was our QB's fault and some wasn't," Stanford head coach David Shaw said following the loss. "We will go watch the film and see what we can do better moving forward."
With a 5-1 record and a 3-1 mark in league play the Cardinal will be playing with a tiny margin for error the rest of the way. Especially if Stanford hopes to return to the Pac-12 title game and compete for a possible berth in the BCS Championship Game, though that goal is much less realistic at this point.
Although head coach Jim Mora and his players likely won't mention it, this contest is about revenge for the Bruins. UCLA faced Stanford in back-to-back weeks at the end of last season and lost both contests, including a 27-24 disappointment in the Pac-12 title game. The win was the fifth straight for the Cardinal against the Bruins. UCLA now leads the all-time series, 45-36-3.
"I think you have to be careful when you make it about redemption. Then you start to get emotional. It has to be about us. We have goals and expectations. We want to play with emotion but not be emotional," Mora said. "They beat us twice last year [including] in the Pac-12 Championship game. When those things become a factor, I think you are making a mistake."
If Brett Hundley puts together another performance like he did last week against California, it won't matter whether the Bruins are playing for redemption or not. Hundley threw for a career-high 410 yards and three touchdowns, while completing 31-of-41 pass attempts. It is unlikely he'll be able to repeat the success against the defensively tough Cardinal. However, Hundley is completing an impressive 68.1 percent of his pass attempts this season, with 12 touchdowns and 1,469 yards. Hundley's ability to elude pressure will also be key for the Bruins with how Stanford plays defense.
Devin Fuller (22 receptions, 265 yards, two TDs) and Shaquelle Evans (20 receptions, 289 yards, four TDs) have established themselves as the go-to receivers for Hundley. Though neither has huge numbers, each has been reliable for the Bruins. Fuller had his best game last week with six receptions for 98 yards and a score, while Evans added 68 yards and a touchdown on six catches.
The Bruins are likely going to need Paul Perkins to improve on his production from last week (14 carries, 36 yards, TD) as it looks like starter Jordon James will be out again. James missed last week's game and is listed as doubtful for Saturday's contest with an ankle injury. Perkins has shown promise this season averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
The Bruins didn't force their way into the top 10 by just playing well on offense. The Bruins are second in the Pac-12 in points allowed (18.2 ppg) and third in total defense (344.8 ypg). They have been able to keep yardage totals down by putting an end to drives quickly and efficiently. UCLA ranks first in the Pac-12 in opponent red zone conversion rate with just 18 first downs allowed in 75 chances. In fact that is the fewest first downs allowed on third down in the country.
The crown jewel of the defensive unit for UCLA is All-American rush linebacker Anthony Barr (26 tackles). He is heating up at the right time, and comes into this contest leading UCLA in TFL (10.0), with four sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Stanford's loss to Utah was a step back for its offense. The Cardinal scored a season-low 21 points in the contest, failing to reach the 30-point plateau for the first time this year. Stanford usually finds a way to score despite lacking the offensive pop of some teams in the league as it ranks second to last in the Pac-12 in total offense (375.2 ypg).
The scheme the Cardinal employ is based on a balanced attack that favors traditional run plays. Tyler Gaffney ran for 108 yards against Utah and also had his seventh rushing touchdown of the season. Gaffney has been the workhorse for the Cardinal this season with 108 carries for 570 yards. Gaffney is third in the conference in carries and fifth in yards per game (96.3).
While Gaffney kept playing at his normal level the eruption of Ty Montgomery against Utah was a lone bright spot. Montgomery, who was added to the Maxwell Award watch list earlier this month and had 296 all-purpose yards against Utah, including a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Montgomery is by far the most productive receiver for the Cardinal with team-highs in receptions (31), yards (514) and touchdowns (five). Devon Cajuste (14 receptions, 268 yards, four TDs) is second on the team in each of those categories.
Guiding the Stanford offensive attack is Kevin Hogan. The junior quarterback is completing better than 60 percent of his pass attempts this season and has 12 touchdowns to only four interceptions. However, he has not been relied on to carry the offense as he is averaging just 196.3 yards per game. Hogan did throw for 246 yards and a score against Utah, so there is some evidence he can be more than a game-manager.
As the season works its way into the second half it may be time to stop calling Stanford a premier defensive squad. After leading the Pac-12 in just about every defensive category last year the Cardinal are just fifth in points allowed (22.2 ppg) and seventh in total defense (379.7 ypg). Although the overall production has dropped off, the Cardinal still play aggressively, ranking third in the league in tackles for loss (44.0). Trent Murphy (8.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks) has been the most fearsome defender in that regard.
Stanford will be playing with added urgency this week following a difficult loss and that is bad new for the Bruins, especially with the Cardinal playing at home where they have not lost in the last 12 games. As long as Shaw can correct the mistakes made against Utah, Stanford should avoid its first losing streak since 2009.