View from the booth: Cardinal brace for the Bruins

Oct. 28, 2022, 1:39 a.m.

At one point during Stanford football’s (3-4, 1-4 Pac-12) win last Saturday against Arizona State (2-5, 1-3 Pac-12), we remarked on the KZSU broadcast that two field goals are worth less than a touchdown. The most truistic of football cliches, right? Well, we all learned that such logic does not necessarily generalize: five field goals beats two touchdowns.

The 15-14 win was perversely hysterical: at times the Cardinal looked like they finally put it all together, and at other times, there was little to do but shake your head and laugh. The latter was especially true during the final Arizona State play, which looked like a carbon copy of the calamitous walk-off Oregon State touchdown before its reversal upon replay. But hey, these imperfections contribute to college football’s endearing nature: the players are not pros, and occasionally you get a team that cannot defend the Hail Mary winning after scoring just five field goals.

Such a preamble is to say that much of the Arizona State game should be thrown out in looking ahead to Saturday night’s tilt at the Rose Bowl with No. 12 UCLA (6-1, 3-1 Pac-12). So many weird things happened against ASU: drops, a chronic inability to play offense beyond the plus-40-yard line and so on. Better to enjoy the win and turn the page.

The Bruins enter Saturday enjoying an excellent season. After starting 6-0, with upset wins against two then-top-15 opponents in Washington and Utah, UCLA cracked the top 10 for the first time since 2015 and harbored genuine — if unlikely — playoff aspirations. That momentum was dampened, quite literally, in the rain at Autzen Stadium last Saturday against Oregon in a top 10 matchup. Nevertheless, the team bolting the Pac-12 to pay the debt collector remains in contention for a first Rose Bowl berth this millennium — after years of mediocrity, this season feels as though the Bruins might finally have cracked the code with head coach Chip Kelly.

Let’s dissect the game: unfortunately, UCLA’s offense is an awful matchup for Stanford’s defense, and though games are never won on paper this mismatch alone makes the Bruins heavy favorites. While the Cardinal defense has impressed over the last three games, UCLA is a different test altogether. Oregon State, Notre Dame and Arizona State all lacked high-level quarterback play or depth in terms of the number of weapons. As such, the Cardinal were able to devote sufficient bodies to slowing down the run and hone in on key skill players in the pass game, thereby rendering the opposition one-dimensional.

Fittingly for a Chip Kelly offense, the Bruins are anything but one-dimensional. UCLA is run-first, and Stanford will need to sell out to slow down the ground attack. Running back Zach Charbonnet ranks second nationally with a staggering 7.16 yards per carry. The Michigan transfer averaged over 150 yards per game over a three game stretch against Washington, Utah and Oregon — three foes better against the run than the Cardinal. That said, simply stacking the box will not be enough, as UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is one of the best dual-threats in the country. His athleticism in the read-option game will force Stanford to play lighter in the box to avoid leaving too much space on the perimeter. There are simply more places each run play can go, and that variation will challenge Stanford’s front.

UCLA runs the ball at a high level — indeed, the Bruins are second in the conference behind Oregon in rushing offense — but the passing game is no slouch. DTR is not an elite passer, but now in his fifth year, he can make enough throws (and avoid the killer errors of years past) to force defenses to respect that element of the offense too. The Bruins boast a number of talented, athletic pass-catchers and can hit the big plays, which of course are on the table if Stanford has to sacrifice players on the back end to support the run defense. Within the Pac-12, UCLA’s offense evokes Oregon — fittingly so, given the Chip Kelly connection. Their talented backs and athletic quarterback create a daunting threat on the ground, while the receivers are a genuine threat that demand respect or win downfield.

Stanford’s defense has turned the corner these past few weeks, but the X’s and O’s are not in the Cardinal’s favor. As we know, the Stanford defense has deficiencies, and UCLA is the sort of offense that really demands the defense be strong everywhere. Saturday could very well turn into a game of whack-a-mole, where the Cardinal sell out to stop one element of the Bruins’ offense only to be burned elsewhere. Add in the Cardinal’s recent inability to find the end zone on offense, and Stanford’s status as a three score underdog at the Rose Bowl is warranted. That said, last time the Cardinal visited an iconic venue as a three-score underdog, Stanford ended the night celebrating an upset win against Notre Dame. Here are some keys to repeat the feat Saturday night.

I. Contain DTR

Stanford struggles versus dual-threat quarterbacks. A recurring issue for a couple of seasons, this shortcoming is a primary concern going into the Rose Bowl. Look at what Oregon quarterback Bo Nix did against Stanford earlier this year: 161 pass yards, 141 rush yards and four total touchdowns. UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson represents just as acute a threat as Nix. Now in his fifth year, DTR is finally showing why he was the number two dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school (behind only Justin Fields, who was taken in the top 15 of the 2021 NFL draft). This will be the fourth time Stanford prepares to face Thompson-Robinson, yet Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has not yet figured him out: aside from his injury in the 2020 game, DTR has haunted the Cardinal with seven total TDs and two victories in 2019 and 2021. 

Reducing DTR’s threat in the run game — both on designed runs and scrambles — lowers the dimensionality of UCLA’s offense, and it could be worth assigning a defender to play as a spy, tasked primarily with watching Thompson-Robinson to prevent the quarterback run. Unfortunately, the obvious candidates to play the spy position — middle linebackers Ricky Miezan and Levani Damuni — are not particularly mobile and lack the athleticism to pursue the quick DTR laterally. I would be interested in seeing an edge player take this position: freshman Ernest Cooper impressed in his debut last Saturday, and his excellent tackle from behind after chasing the ball-carrier from the weak side against Arizona State suggests he may have the quickness to chase Thompson-Robinson across the gridiron. 

II. Show signs of life on the ground

Junior running back Casey Filkins went down on a needless, dirty late hit against Arizona State, and the team’s leading rusher likely joins junior E.J. Smith — the preseason starter — on the sidelines for the rest of the year. Then, the already-bleak picture at running back worsened this week when true freshman Arlen Harris announced his intention to transfer and left the program. That leaves junior Caleb Robinson and sophomore Brendon Barrow as the remaining options. The pair have a combined 24 carries for 83 yards in their careers, were minimally involved even after Smith’s injury and are backed up only by sophomores Danny McFadden (a scout teamer) and Mitch Leigber (a converted defensive back, who is listed as a running back for the first time this week). 

Not exactly positive. I expect Stanford to mix in wrinkles like the read-option (possibly with freshman quarterback Ashton Daniels) or wide receiver runs to try to spark the ground game, but ultimately somebody in that room will need to step up over the next five games. Asking junior Tanner McKee to throw 57 times per game, as he did against the Sun Devils, is unsustainable. Further, certain key pass concepts rely on some credible run threat. For example, what defensive back will bite on the slow mesh if the backs are a non-factor? Speaking bluntly, there’s a possibility that Stanford cannot run for 80 yards per game going forward — if that’s how things shape up, Stanford will struggle offensively for the rest of the season.

III. Play for variance

This is my somewhat uncreative way of saying do the things you need to do to win as an underdog: win the turnover battle, steal extra possessions, don’t kick on fourth-and-short and so on. Indeed, this is the approach Oregon head coach Dan Lanning took last week, taking back a possession with a successful surprise onside kick.

This is all to say, play for variance. By that, I find the contrast between mean and variance to be a compelling framework for how to approach games as an underdog. UCLA is expected to win this game, and on average, they do. Yet, a game is a small sample: 60 minutes of Pac-12 After Dark weirdness. The underdog’s task, then, is to vary the game away from how on average it would play out.

As an example, consider going for it on fourth-and-short inside one’s own territory. On average, teams will punt, yet going for it could buy an extra possession. Yes, there is downside — you don’t convert — but if you’re the underdog, odds are against you anyway if you punt. Hence, going for it offers potential upside. Coincidentally, in previous years Stanford’s offense has played into this framework. By running the football consistently, a team runs more clock and makes the game shorter by reducing the number of possessions each team gets, which in turn reduces the sample size and thereby adds variance to the outcome. Even more reason to get something going on the ground.

Pablo’s Picks of the Week

  • UCLA 38, Stanford 20
  • Game I’ll be watching: (19) Kentucky at (3) Tennessee
  • Upset of the week: Pitt at (21) North Carolina

Pablo will be in the booth Saturday to call the game on KZSU.

Pablo is a columnist for the sports section. You can also find him in the booth calling Stanford football all season long on KZSU 90.1 FM. You can contact Pablo at sports 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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