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Scouting Report: UCLA football vs. Stanford

By Jon Christon

Sept. 24, 2021 12:13 p.m.

No. 24 UCLA football (2-1) couldn’t extend its undefeated start to the season last week, but the blue and gold will begin Pac-12 play Saturday with a matchup against North Division rival Stanford (2-1). The Bruins have lost 12 of their last 13 matchups to the Cardinal, including a double-overtime thriller last year. Here is this week’s scouting report from Sports editor Jon Christon – who is still recovering after leaving the Rose Bowl last week at 1:30 a.m.

Stanford’s offense
Offensive scheme: Pro-style
Run-pass percentage: 50.9% pass, 49.1% rush
Strength: Trenches
Weakness: Passing game
X-factor: QB Tanner McKee

The Cardinal aren’t going to blow you away with an Air Raid offense like some Pac-12 teams.

Nor will they burn you on the ground like others.

But one thing’s for sure – Stanford will control the tempo of the game, and that starts with its offensive line.

The Cardinal returned three starters from a year ago on their offensive line, including Outland Trophy watch list honoree Walter Rouse at left tackle and The Athletic’s 2020 Freshman All-American second team member Branson Bragg at right guard.

Having a productive offensive line isn’t the most flashy attribute, but it’s been David Shaw’s bread and butter since he was since he arrived as the head coach in Palo Alto in 2011.

Routinely one of the conference’s leaders in lowest number of sacks allowed, the Cardinal also tend to hold the ball longer than their opponent, winning the time of possession battle in 14 of their last 21 games dating back to 2019.

Stanford has regularly been one of the premier rushing attacks in the Pac-12 behind the offensive line as well. In his first seven years as the Cardinal’s coach, Shaw led his team to the top half of the conference in rushing yards per game multiple times with three top-three finishes.

However, Shaw’s squad has seen a rushing downturn in recent years. The Cardinal averaged just 111.8 yards on the ground per game from 2018 to 2020. Through three games this season, Stanford is averaging 128 rushing yards a contest – good for 79th in the nation.

Even with the lowered rushing totals, the Cardinal offense still revolves around the run. Quarterback Tanner McKee looks the part of the quintessential Stanford game-manager, averaging less than 200 yards per game while completing more than 70% of his passes.

In recent weeks, however, McKee has shown flashes of being something more, out-dueling USC quarterback Kedon Slovis in week two with 241 total yards and three touchdowns in his first career start after beginning the season on the bench.

McKee will have a favorable matchup against a porous UCLA pass defense, and if he can exploit it for somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 yards, it should put less pressure on the offensive line and the running game.

But unlike the way last week’s contest against Fresno State presented a matchup nightmare for the Bruins, this week represents a dream scenario for UCLA.

The Bruins have historically struggled against offenses that air the ball out, and the Cardinal offense definitely does not do that. Stanford may want to run the ball at an elite level, but the Bruins have been one of the best run-stopping teams in the Pac-12 in recent memory.

Ultimately, the game will fall on McKee’s shoulders.

After UCLA’s debacle last week against Fresno State, the Cardinal will almost assuredly try to punish the Bruins in the air. The only question is if McKee can live up to the task.

Stanford’s defense
Defensive scheme: 3-4
Strength: Secondary
Weakness: Rush defense/Defensive line
X-factor: CB Kyu Blu Kelly

A week after playing a strong four-lineman front, UCLA will get a better matchup this week against Stanford, whose three-man front is considerably lacking.

While the Cardinal return two starters on the defensive line from a year ago and boast 11 years of collegiate experience between their three starting defensive linemen, Stanford has struggled at the point of attack in recent years.

In terms of getting into the backfield, Stanford ranks last in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss and in the bottom half in sacks – but it has been even worse in terms of stopping the run.

The Cardinal are currently giving up 210.7 yards on the ground per game – ranking 100th out of 130 teams in the country after they allowed 222 rushing yards per game in 2020, which ranked 111th.

This is good news for UCLA, which is coming off its worst rushing game in nearly two years. The Bruins want to keep the ball on the ground first and foremost, and if last year is any indication, they will have plenty of success doing so against the Cardinal.

UCLA ran Stanford into oblivion last season, gashing the Cardinal for 291 rushing yards in the season finale. While the Bruins lost that game in double overtime, I bet they’ll follow a similar game plan this year.

But one area where Stanford has improved is in pass defense. After allowing 216.7 yards per game in the air in 2020, Stanford has lowered that total to 172.7 yards per contest in 2021 – good for 22nd in the nation.

In part, the Cardinal can thank exceptional defensive back play for that statistical increase.

After losing defensive backs Jonathan McGill and Salim Turner-Muhammad to injury before the season started, it appeared as if the team’s secondary would take a hit. But that was before the emergence of cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly.

Kelly co-leads Stanford in a number of statistical categories, including interceptions and tackles. He tied for fourth in passes defended of any defensive back in the nation, including four pass breakups and two highlight-reel-worthy interceptions.

The junior recently won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for his stellar week two matchup against USC, which featured seven tackles, three pass breakups and one pick-six. The turnover-prone Dorian Thompson-Robinson should take caution when targeting his former high school teammate, or the senior quarterback’s statline could be ugly.

Stanford also has depth and experience in its secondary, with fifth-year Noah Williams and senior Kendall Williamson locking down the two safety spots and junior Zahran Manley taking one of the other cornerback positions.

But like their offense, the Cardinal defense presents a very favorable matchup for the Bruins. UCLA should be able to set the tone with the run, something it could not do against Fresno State.

However, if the Bruins fall behind early and are forced to pass more than they would like, the Cardinal have enough playmakers in the secondary to make the road team pay.

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Jon Christon | Sports editor
Christon is currently the Sports editor and a reporter on the men's basketball and football beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a reporter on the women's basketball and softball beats.
Christon is currently the Sports editor and a reporter on the men's basketball and football beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a reporter on the women's basketball and softball beats.
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