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Stanford's loss to Utah is quickly fading in the rear view mirror. Saturday's vintage performance, a 24-10 physical manhandling of previously ninth-ranked UCLA, eased many nerves regarding the state of the Cardinal's program. A fortunate weekend elsewhere, one peppered with Top 10 losses nationwide, accomplished the rest in lifting Stanford from a precarious position back into an enviable one. With a win at Oregon State this Saturday, the Cardinal will own the inside track to at least the first edition of this season's Rose Bowl. Loftier goals are not yet out of the question, either. Those discussions, though, are for another time. Here's an examination of the critical victory over UCLA:
- To begin, there's something to be said about the inherent stability of Stanford's program. Following the debacle in Salt Lake City, there was legitimate worry that the Cardinal could stumble to 5-4 by the time of their November 16 visit to the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Bruins had the talent to exploit a decimated defensive line, while Oregon State and Oregon both pose big trouble for any opponent -- especially a wounded one. The Farm Boys, though, did not budge at home against Baby Blue. True to recent form, they dug in and dominated UCLA in all three phases of the game. It's been over four years since Stanford last lost twice in a row, and it's apparent that the Cardinal have a special formula that fosters stability working for them (Look no further than Washington, whose season is spiraling out of control after such a promising 4-0 start, as a counter-example demonstrating instability). Credit Jim Harbaugh, David Shaw, and the rest of the staff for creating an even-keeled juggernaut that's been able to withstand all turbulence for nearly half a decade now.
- This stability has been rooted in Stanford's consistent control of the line of scrimmage, and this upper hand was as apparent as ever on Saturday. Snap infractions, false starts, and injuries destroyed UCLA's offensive line, and the Cardinal fully capitalized despite thinness of their own on the defensive front. Coordinator Derek Mason has long emphasized the importance of defensive versatility from his troops, and it's paying off in a big way for Stanford's shorthanded unit now. Aside from shifting between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes to maximize confusion, Trent Murphy, Blake Lueders, and James Vaughters -- all technically outside linebackers -- assumed a three point stance at the line of scrimmage to fortify the front on more than one occasion. The Cardinal didn't skip a beat despite playing at far less than full strength in this one: They held UCLA 38 points and nearly 300 yards below their season averages coming in.
- On the other side of the ball, Stanford's offensive line
delivered its best performance so far of 2013. Andrus Peat,
whose lightning-fast snap reaction time may give the illusion of
a false start in real time, swallowed UCLA star Anthony Barr on
pass protection. No. 70's run blocking was impressive, too,
especially when Kyle Murphy complemented the left side in the
jumbo package. But the Cardinal's most eye-popping performance
in offensive muscle work came from right guard Kevin Danser, who
opened a pancake house in the Saturday sunshine. Danser teamed
with Khalil Wilkes to produce several commanding double teams,
and his second half obliteration of UCLA's Eddie Vanderdoes
opened a gaping hole for Tyler Gaffney while illustrating the
marked physical advantage a fifth-year senior has over a true
freshman. The Farm Boys ground meat with both brute force and
athleticism up front: Danser, David Yankey, Devon Cajuste, and
Ty Montgomery all plowed the way ahead of Gaffney on more than
one productive run.
- The victory up front earned Stanford a critical edge when it came to time of possession. The Cardinal controlled the ball almost 15 minutes longer than UCLA (37:11 to 22:49), and that advantage was significant in this contest. Gaffney told me that the Bruins defense was noticeably fatigued by the second quarter. Meanwhile, it was clear that the Cardinal's defense had no such problems very deep into the game. When Bruins' center Jake Brendel tried to block Josh Mauro in the fourth quarter, No. 90 responded with first quarter freshness: He shed Brendel's 300-pound frame with his arms and quickly clogged the potential Bruins' running hole up front. Saturday's game put Stanford's winning formula on clear display again: If Oregon State is again unable to run the ball this weekend, the Cardinal will have another shot to control possession and keep their shorthanded defensive line fresh.
- Some uncharacteristic Stanford offensive mistakes actually kept this game closer for much longer than the final yardage figures (Stanford 419, UCLA 266) might indicate. Ty Montgomery's first drop of the season came on what would have been a sure touchdown during the Cardinal's first possession. Tyler Gaffney dropped a well-designed shovel pass that beat a Barr blitz on third-and-short a little later on, extinguishing another potential touchdown opportunity. The Cardinal would have almost certainly punched the ball into the end zone had Cajuste held onto Kevin Hogan's sidearm bullet near the end of the first half. Instead, the throw clanged off his chest and turned into a UCLA interception.
- Shaw's offensive gameplan was extremely conservative. If Hogan maintains Saturday's sharp level of play, that may continue to be a point of great frustration for Stanford fans. No. 8 finished 18-for-25 for 227 yards. He took no sacks, scrambled effectively, was not responsible for the Cardinal's one turnover, and even made a miraculous fumble recovery (shades of Wilkes in overtime at Autzen Stadium last year). It's possible that Shaw was using his quarterback gingerly after two consecutive shaky outings, but Saturday's play at the position -- if it keeps up -- was too good for Stanford to settle on third-and-five hand-offs for the rest of the season. There's a chance the Cardinal will need to ask Hogan to do more on third down this coming week. Oregon State is explosive and they're playing at home. That combination may require Stanford's attack to counter with increased aggressiveness.
- UCLA's seven penalties all seemed to come at just the worst
time. The Bruins' first infraction, in fact, came when they were
setting up the swing pass screen -- the same play Utah used so
effectively against Stanford last week -- for the first time.
With the plan foiled in that particular instance, UCLA did not
throw its first perimeter screen until only 30 seconds remained
in the first quarter. Since their defensive line was handling
the Bruins' damaged front on interior run plays, Stanford was
able to devote extra attention to the outside and snuff out any
serious UCLA activity there. The run never proved to be a great
threat, so Usua Amanam saw more time at nickel back than the
larger Joe Hemschoot. He consistently beat outside blocks and
funneled receivers back toward the middle of the field, where
Jordan Richards feasted with improved angles to the tune of 10
tackles. The Bruins also tried to run variations off swing pass
formations, but quarterback Brett Hundley was never able to
capitalize. His best shot may have come on an early deep attempt
to Shaquell Evans, but the throw sailed over his receiver's
- Hundley was mostly contained to the pocket, where Stanford did a consistent job of bringing a disciplined blitz that trapped him there for most of the afternoon. Vaughters was over-aggressive once, and that allowed Hundley to slip out for a big gain, but the Cardinal were almost perfect when it came to assignment execution. Shayne Skov often patrolled the shallow zone on passing downs, and he closed in quickly on Hundley to deliver a pair of crunching hits when the UCLA sophomore thought about scrambling downfield. Stanford's most disciplined defensive effort so far renews optimism that the Cardinal will be able to compete with Oregon State and Oregon, the next two offensive juggernauts on the schedule.
- Cajuste's injury status will be more clear on Tuesday, and that's a critical question mark for Stanford moving forward. The team's tight ends have accrued only five catches this season, but Saturday's game marked a crucial step forward for the passing game: Wide receivers finally began to consistently deliver the short possession contributions that tight ends have supplied the Cardinal offense in the past. Cajuste's seven-catch, 109-yard effort was vital, especially since UCLA's secondary was paying extra attention to Montgomery. No. 89 converted a key third down on a short pattern out of the slot before using his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame to out-muscle a cornerback on a jump ball to the outside. Jordan Pratt also delivered 13-yard possession reception in the middle of the zone, the type of catch Stanford has been itching for this season.
- Luke Kaumatule played sparingly on the defensive line after
his conversion from tight end, but Shaw said that his energy was
just what the doctor ordered for the Stanford defense. Blake Martinez also saw his most significant career action at
linebacker for the Cardinal. He usually came onto the field with
Jarek Lancaster to provide rest for Skov and A.J. Tarpley. Kevin Anderson, another second string linebacker, enjoyed another game
of productive playing time on the outside. His role there
appears to have increased with Lueders' temporary move to
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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