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September 10, 2010

Time to step up as UCLA hosts Stanford

It has been said - a few million times - that a college football team improves most in the week between its first and second games. Coaches say that. In particular, UCLA's coach, Rick Neuheisel, says that.

In this case, he knows it's pretty important that his team live up to the mantra.

Because all signs are that this week's opponent is stronger, more well-rounded, and just plain better than last week's. And last week didn't go all that well.

The big question for UCLA is what exactly is fixable in one week.

The questions for Stanford are two-fold: how well does the team do with a new look, having to replace Toby Gerhard? And, just how much preparation did they really get playing Sacramento State in their first game?

The lack of a serious opponent in week one makes the Cardinal a bit harder to scout. Last week, just about everything worked for them. Their wunderkind quarterback was terrific; their receivers all got open and caught passes; and five running backs had at least three carries in an easy win.

This week they travel down to Pasadena. They'll be playing in an actual road situation. And they'll have a real opponent in front of them.

Nationally ranked Stanford (#25) enters this season with a good deal of hype. Their coach is getting a lot of respect and praise from the sports talk show circuit.

Most commentators look at the Pac 10 and see Oregon standing above the rest; SC no longer dominant but still quite strong, especially on offense; Oregon State very solid along with Stanford and Arizona rounding out the top half of the five with Washington as a program on the rise.

Could have been UCLA there also but, as one national ESPN football commentator commentated, "Every time I hear anything about UCLA it seems to be another injury." His partner on the air responded, "For the last three years."

One ESPN writer visited Westwood and noted he saw a lot of impressive talent at UCLA, but aside from Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore, nearly all of it was very, very young and inexperienced.

It should also be noted that the older guys playing are not necessarily highly experienced, not second or third year starters; in fact, in many cases especially along the offensive line, they were not really projected to be starters now at all. The line did a solid job against KSU, but this week will tell a lot more about them and about how the season is going to go.

It's time for the talent to grow up fast and the older hands to play smart - be in the right place at the right time and make the plays they can make. The Bruins' improving talent level is undeniable. And last week, while the quarterback and the Bruins' respected receiving corps had poor games, the new UCLA offense nevertheless moved the ball pretty well at times including putting up some improved numbers on the ground and converting under pressure to give the Bruins a chance to tie it up late in the game.

So Stanford doesn't get this one in a walkover. They're going to have to fight for it, and their opponent this week should be in a pretty nasty mood to kick off the conference season and defend their home field. At least one would hope that is the case.

What the Cardinal brings to the fray first and foremost is size and experience. They are big and talented across the lines including the linebackers on defense and the tight ends on offense. Their center - #72 Chase Beeler - is 6-3 and 285-pounds. Everyone else on the line is at least 6-5 and more than 300-pounds.

The starting tight end, Levine Toilolo, suffered a torn ACL in the first game and the 6-8, 263-pounder is lost for the year. Still, the other tight ends, #82 Coby Fleener, #88 Konrad Reuland and #86 Zach Ertz all measure 6-6.

Think Coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback #12 Andrew Luck aren't hoping to get them isolated on UCLA's young cornerbacks come game time? Six of their front seven on defense are upperclassmen as are three seniors who start on the offensive line.

While Stanford showed only a 4-2-5 defense against Sacramento, they are expected to line up in a 3-4 as their primary defense. The UCLA blocking assignments will be different, another challenge to an offensive line that lost its experienced center and line signal caller when starting center Kai Maiava went down on the third play of last month's scrimmage.

Stanford's nose tackle, #92 Sione Fua, is a 6-2 307-pound senior, and the two defensive ends are junior Matthew Masifilo (6-3, 280) and senior Brian Bulcke (6-4, 285). They are backed up by four linebackers who are Owen Marecic (6-1, 244), Max Bergen (6-2, 227), Thomas Keiser (6-4, 244)and Chase Thomas (6-4, 239). Running the ball against that group may not be quite so easy for UCLA this week.

Stanford's marquee player, of course, is sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck. Standing 6-4 and weighing 235 and with a season's experience behind him, the Cardinal faithful have high expectations of their young quarterback.

Still, Coach Harbaugh would much prefer to mount a successful running attack to exploit what appeared to be a UCLA weakness based on last week's game and to keep the pressure off his young but celebrated quarterback at the same time.

At tailback, where most still can't help seeing the after-image of last year's All American, the Cardinal will likely start 6-1, 218 pound senior (#34) Jeremy Stewart. But look for two sophomores to get time as well as Harbaugh continues his search for a successor to Gerhard. The sophs are (#31) Stepfan Taylor (5-11, 205) and (#25) Tyler Gaffney (6-1, 216). The fullback could be (#48) Owen Marecic, who will be playing both ways.

One question the Cardinal will be seeking to answer is have they been able to improve their defensive backfield play, considered a team weakness last season. But this game really looks to be decided in the trenches - if the Bruins can give their quarterback time to throw, that should open up lots of options for UCLA, both running and passing, and no defensive backfield can keep good receivers from getting open for too long.
The bottom line is pretty clear: Stanford is a good, solid team. They come into Pasadena expecting to be able to move the ball both on the ground and through the air and to present a solid challenge to UCLA's inexperienced offense as well. From what both teams have shown, last year and in the earliest stages of this season, they arrive having earned the favorite's position in this game.

UCLA's response has to start on offense with the offensive line. Kevin Prince - or Richard Brehaut - has to get the ball closer to on-target and it would certainly help if Prince could make a cut or two when the opportunity to run presents itself. Coach Neuheisel continues to look to the long term and bring his freshman star running backs along slowly, planning to again feature Derrick Coleman and Johnathan Franklin, but look for Malcolm Jones at least to get more carries this week.

Most important, UCLA's receiving corps, considered a real strong point on this team, has to get off the line, run the routes, and catch the ball with their hands when it is thrown to them. In fact, they may have to make some good grabs of less than perfect passes.

But if the Bruins do respond and play the game of which they are capable, UCLA's new offense has shown it will enable them to move the ball and UCLA's unmatched kicking game has shown it can make the difference and turn this season around in a hurry on Saturday.


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