This wasn’t the conference championship everyone was expecting and predicting early on in the year; Instead, Stanford get to host this game a year later than what they had in mind, while UCLA, already carrying one loss to the Cardinal this season (just last week) find themselves as big underdogs on the big stage once again.
There’s no getting around the fact that few expected to see these two teams here. Stanford, despite losing Andrew Luck, had a very good season, which eventually was thwarted by two losses of under 7 points to Washington and Notre Dame. The rest, including USC and Oregon, just didn’t have the tools to handle their fantastic defense, keeping teams at 16.9 points per game, 11th in the nation.
UCLA is a team even less people expected to see; they lost to a 3-9 California team earlier in the season, but enjoyed the crumbling of USC, helping the Trojans collapse with a 38-28 win two weeks ago.
But the way Stanford manhandled the Bruins last week in the Rose Bowl has a lot of people worried this isn’t going to be a fair fight. Stanford’s front seven had no problem handling the UCLA offensive line and doing the most important job of all: Slowing down Johnathan Franklin, who finished with only 65 yards on 21 carries, averaging 125.5 yards on the ground on regular days.
That’s the key for Stanford – Keep the pressure on that offensive line and hope UCLA try to win the game with Brett Hundley, a nice quarterback, nothing more. Stanford are also a team that base a lot on their running game, averaging 173.6 yards on the ground per game this season. Most of the burden has fallen on Stepfan Taylor, enjoying his third consecutive 1300+ yards season.
With their big advantages in the trenches, this is what Stanford are going to do: Run behind Taylor (142 yards vs UCLA last week) and Anthony Wilkerson (48 yards vs UCLA last week) and keep pounding the ball through the middle. Kevin Hogan doesn’t work well under pressure, and the sooner that Stanford establish the run, the easier it’s going to get for the freshman quarter, who has won all four games since taking over for Josh Nunes.
What can UCLA bring to the table? Surprises and creativity. A lot of it depends on the play calling, but trying to get Hundley to pick up yards with his legs early on and making some flip and reverse plays might take the edge of the very physical and aggressive Stanford front 7, allowing Franklin a bit more space to operate in.
Prediction – UCLA are too predictable, and if they stick to their usual guns, it’s going to be a very easy day for Stanford, who haven’t won the conference title since 1999, a very long time being away from a Rose Bowl.