Pac-12 Championship: Can UCLA rewrite the ending?

Stephen Dunn

While the odds are against UCLA, if college football has taught us anything this year, it’s that you never really know what you’re going to get from week to week. Hopefully this sequel proves more entertaining than the unimaginative original.

There is no better way to build momentum before a conference title game than to lose the week before at home, by 18 points, to the exact same opponent you’ll face again the next week. Even better, the second time around you get to square off against that same opponent on their home turf – a place where they have gone 18-1 over the past three season (assist to Pacific Takes for that stat). Well, that unwelcoming situation is exactly where the UCLA Bruins find themselves after falling, 35-17, to the Stanford Cardinal last Saturday.

As many pointed out, had the Bruins actually won the game and subsequently headed up to Autzen Stadium to face the Oregon Ducks, that match-up may have been much more daunting in their eyes than traveling up to Palo Alto. After reviewing last week’s game tape, there is no question UCLA came out playing hard against the Cardinal. But once they got down, one could question whether they really wanted to come back, just so they could face an Oregon team that put up 571 yards and 49 points the last time they played each other (2011 Pac-12 title game).

Despite last week’s loss, UCLA should feel pretty good about its chances heading into this week’s conference championship. While the scoreboard may have told a different story, just three glaring things stood out on the tape that, if corrected, would give UCLA a great chance to win: 1) Better establishing the run, 2) avoiding a lengthy offensive drought, and 3) keeping Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan in the pocket.

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Establishing the Run

First off, let’s acknowledge establishing the ground game against Stanford is easier said than done. After all, the Stanford defense is third in Rushing S&P+ and first in rushing yards allowed per game (71.3). While the yardage numbers are slightly skewed by their nation-leading 53 sacks (yardage lost on sacks is counted against the rushing total in college), this has been a dominant run defense nonetheless.

If the Bruins are going to have any chance, they are going to get more production out of Johnathan Franklin, their 1,500-yard rusher. Last Saturday, Franklin was able to muster just 65 yards on 21 carries (3.1 per carry). The dominance of Stanford’s front-seven helped the Cardinal dominate time of possession -- 35 minutes to 25 minutes -- and bought their offense enough time to steadily build a crippling 35-10 lead by the midway point of the third quarter. The combination of an ineffective ground game and a widening deficit forced the normally-balanced Bruins to become much more one-dimensional than they prefer.

Given the pass rush abilities of Stanford’s physical front-seven, the game was essentially over at that point. By the end of the contest, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley had been sacked seven times and knocked down several others. This Friday, the Bruins simply cannot put themselves in a similar situation where Stanford’s rush once again pins their ears back and torment their freshman quarterback. Getting Franklin going would help with that.

Avoiding the Drought

The UCLA offense came storming out of the gates with a six-play, 87-yard scoring drive to start the game. Two drives later, UCLA went 10 plays for 58 yards before pinning Stanford back with a punt. Then came the two-quarter drought.

The next seven UCLA drives lasted three, three, three, three, 10, three and three plays, respectively. There were a total of 28 plays for just 33 yards (1.2 per play). Over that stretch, the score of the game went from 7-7 to 35-10, with the Bruins’ only points coming after Stanford mishandled a punt-snap and gave UCLA the ball in field goal range.

The Bruins’ inability to either run the ball or convert third downs left their defense on the field far too long against Stanford’s physical offense. Eventually, the UCLA defense strained and wilted under the heavy workload. This weekend, the UCLA offense must find a more consistent rhythm and avoid three-and-outs to help its defense. This would not only allow their defense to catch their breath, but also help them out tremendously in the field-position battle.

Keep Hogan in the Pocket

At first glance, the 160 passing yards by Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan doesn’t seem all that impressive. But, when you consider the Cardinal pounded away for 221 yards on the ground, you begin to understand the passing game wasn’t needed all that much. While slowing the Cardinal’s renowned ground-and-pound attack should be the Bruins main concern, slowing down Stanford’s play-action, bootleg scheme should their No. 2 priority.

Because Stanford’s rushing attack is so potent, the play-action game become lethal. In last week’s contest, Hogan went 4-for-4 for 52 yards and three first-downs on play-action, bootleg passes. Frustrated by the success Stanford was having on the ground, overly anxious Bruins defenders consistently found themselves a step or two behind in their play-action coverage. If the UCLA defense is once again unable to stop the run and the play-action, it is going to be another long day.

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Despite losing by 18-points at home last weekend, UCLA can watch the game tape and see that a few corrections could go a long ways towards changing this week’s result. Getting back to their roots as a high-paced, well-balanced offense should be the Bruins’ top priority. If Stanford is once again successful in limiting Franklin, then Hundley will have to pick up the slack with his versatile skill-set. Using Hundley’s running ability to complement Franklin (something UCLA didn’t do much of last week) may be one new way the Bruins attempt to create running lanes against the formidable Cardinal defense. While the odds are against UCLA, if college football has taught us anything this year, it’s that you never really know what you’re going to get from week to week. Hopefully this sequel proves more entertaining than the unimaginative original.

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