September 25, 2021 at 10:42 am #5325rogpodgeParticipant
From Footballoutsiders’ Seventh Day Adventure
(Linking because it covers other games). This is a look at the game from an analytics point of view, which says that if you throw out the Kansas State game and the garbage time against Vandy, things are tighter than they appear. Stanford should pass the ball, and UCLA should run. I’m not sure Stanford has the players to stack the box, but we’ll see.
UCLA (-4.5) at Stanford—Saturday, 6 p.m. (Pac-12 Network)
Overall UCLA Stanford 2021 F/+ 22 56 When UCLA has the ball Offense Defense 2021 F/+ 9 84 2021 EPA/pass 5 41 2021 EPA/rush 41 114 When Stanford has the ball Defense Offense 2021 F/+ 52 36 2021 EPA/pass 88 32 2021 EPA/rush 8 62
Few teams started the season as impressively as UCLA, which rolled into the Rose Bowl and took care of business against an overconfident LSU in Week 1. Dorian Thompson-Robinson launched one of the season’s most impressive quarterback campaigns to date; he’s averaging 11.0 yards per pass with seven touchdowns and just one interception. Add the game-changing performance of Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet (242 yards, 10.5 yards per carry, six touchdowns), and you have one of the most potent offenses in the nation.
But even as that group put up its third game of 37 or more points against Fresno State, the Bruins found themselves a few points short of victory. The signs of UCLA’s questionable pass defense were there from the beginning, as they allowed a pedestrian 7.3 yards per attempt in 2020. In that otherwise-solid LSU game, they surrendered 330 yards and three touchdowns to quarterback Max Johnson, comparable to the failures of 2020 Ole Miss and 2021 Central Michigan against the Tigers’ passer. But Fresno State’s Jake Haener, even fighting through evident injury throughout most of the fourth quarter, was able to break the UCLA secondary wide open, going 39-for-53 for 455 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Bruins’ ability to prevent plays through the air is lacking; that much we know. But that alone doesn’t get to the heart of why UCLA did a worse job of stopping Haener than UConn had a few weeks prior. The key for Fresno State to open up the passing game was the tried and true method of building a foundation on the ground first. Hawaiʻi managed a dismal 26 yards on 21 carries against the Bruins, and LSU’s 49 yards on 25 carries weren’t much better. The Bulldogs stand out against those comparisons as they rushed for 114 yards, 3.1 yards per carry, and three touchdowns in their upset of UCLA. The Bruins allowed a team with a great quarterback to create another dimension of attack—not too different from their own game plan.
UCLA is most successful when they can manage the versatility of their own offense and keep that of their opponent’s in check. That’s true for every team, but the Bruins are markedly better when they can supplement Thompson-Robinson with a rusher like Charbonnet, and their defense is likewise far better when its phenomenal defensive line can take the lead and force their foes into do-or-die passing downs. Those tendencies make Stanford, which loves to surprise with passes on rushing downs and vice versa, an intriguing matchup.
After an achingly slow start against Kansas State in which Stanford didn’t score for the first 56:44 of their season, the Cardinal suddenly woke up and transformed into one of football’s best offense. From that point onwards, through a 42-28 shellacking of USC that cost Clay Helton his job and a thorough 41-23 dismantling of Vanderbilt, they have averaged about 43.8 points per 60 minutes, which would rank seventh in FBS. quarterback Tanner McKee (8.1 yards per attempt, 5 TDs, 0 INTs) and top receivers Brycen Tremayne (165 yards, 3 TDs), Elijah Higgins (108 yards, 1 TDs), and John Humphreys (119 yards, 17 yards per catch) have led a decent passing performance, with Stanford putting up 452 yards and four touchdowns across their last two games, but the surge has been led by a rushing attack that has opened up both phases of the offensive game.
Against the Wildcats, Stanford’s rushing attack looked practically nonexistent. The Cardinal usually lean on the pass, but the dismal ground game—39 yards on 22 carries—left them little choice, and perhaps more importantly allowed Kansas State to focus on preventing Stanford’s only real weapon. Those struggles might well have continued and prevented an upset of USC were it not for the emergence of junior Nathaniel Peat, who towered over his teammates’ combined 30 yards with a 115-yard showing on just six carries. Peat singlehandedly brought the rushing attack into play for Stanford, and a week later, the rest of the rushing corps followed suit. Peat, Austin Jones, E.J. Smith, and Casey Filkins all contributed at least 35 yards and 5-plus yards per carry against Vanderbilt as the Cardinal put up 204 yards, 7.6 team yards per carry, and three touchdowns en route to an easy win.
Momentum is in Stanford’s favor, but is that performance in the running back group really a reliable trend? It’s easy to handwave it away as little more than Peat’s outsized performance against USC, combined with a meaningless crushing of one of the worst teams in the Power 5. On paper, the Cardinal are a quality offense all around, but they still only have one genuinely impressive rushing game from any player beyond the Vanderbilt contest. Will that potential weakness cost them against a punishing UCLA squad, or can Stanford continue to put forth a dangerous offense through the air and on the ground? The answer will be key to their hopes of a second ranked upset in three weeks.
- Can Stanford’s surprising pass defense stand up against Thompson-Robinson’s explosive play?
- Will UCLA’s penchant for short drives (giving them the 116th-ranked time of possession in FBS) keep the Cardinal a step behind?
- How will Bruins running back Brittain Brown rebound from a rough game in which he put up just 23 yards and 2.6 yards per carry after back-to-back games of at least 75 yards and 5.5 yards per carry?
FEI Outright Pick: UCLA by 1.1
September 25, 2021 at 7:46 pm #5329cardcrimsonParticipant
The only positive is our kicker can hit from 65 if needed. Too bad he doinked his 54 yarder.
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