Pac-12 football has a decidedly offensive reputation — not offensive like, this aggression will not stand, man – but offensive as in the conference is home to five of the nation’s top 40 scoring offenses.
Chip Kelly’s hyper-speed version of the spread has transformed Oregon into a national powerhouse; Rich Rodriguez’s zone-read system has Arizona bowling in his first year; Noel Mazzone helped kick start UCLA’s previously sluggish offense into a well-balanced threat; and a bevy of five star talent put up big points at USC.
And Stanford’s defense beat them all.
The Cardinal is the deviation from the norm in the Pac-12. An aggressive philosophy heavy on blitz packages, employed via a front seven as talented as any in college football, neutralized the many uptempo attacks around the league. What defensive coordinator Derek Mason, Chase Thomas, Shayne Skov and the rest of the Stanford defense proved is that all things equal, a great defense does indeed trump a great offense.
Stanford is the most comparable team to the ballyhooed defenses of the SEC one is likely to find outside that conference. Cardinal linebackers have NFL size and speed, which sets the entire tone for Stanford.
There’s inherent irony that after two years of boasting the best offenses in Stanford history, this year’s defense-centric team is on the cusp of winning the Pac-12 and going to the Rose Bowl — the two feats that eluded Andrew Luck.
On this weekday evening — is this…uh, what day is this? — well, tonight, the Cardinal seeks to again stamp out a potent opposing offense and wrap up an unlikely Rose Bowl season.
The theme for the Bruins is building on second chances. UCLA gets another crack at solving the Stanford defense, in the Bruins’ second consecutive Pac-12 championship game appearance. A 34-24 defeat of rival USC more lopsided than the final score would indicate punched UCLA’s ticket to this title game, a gratifying vindication for last season’s backed-into title game appearance.
UCLA made good on its second chance to represent the Pac-12 South under first-year head coach Jim Mora. Tonight, it gets another such opportunity with the program’s first Rose Bowl bid since 1998 on the line.
In a role reversal from its Pac-12 South-clinching defeat of USC, UCLA’s loss to Stanford was uglier than the 35-17 final score. The Bruins made numerous mental mistakes and looked listless. Their uninspired play elicited questions from Los Angeles Times columnist and noted troll TJ Simers to Mora about the Bruins’ effort.
Oregon or Stanford was a pick-or-poison proposition, though. Blinding offensive speed or stifling defensive tenacity, neither is exactly a more appealing prospect to face than the other. The suggestion UCLA would tank to see Stanford’s defense again is asinine. That also doesn’t mean we saw the Bruins at their best last week.
While 2012 has been a great year for UCLA, this is still a program more than a decade removed from the national spotlight. There was a deer-in-headlights element to UCLA’s initial performance against a team with two BCS appearances under its belt. And while the UCLA coaching staff and players certainly didn’t wave a white flag, the Bruins looked mighty vanilla after falling behind 35-10 on Usua Amanam’s fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Surely Mazzone gained some insight into solving the rare blend of size and speed that characterizes the Cardinal defense during last week’s 35-17 loss in the Rose Bowl. Committing to the rush is essential. Stanford doesn’t give up much yardage — last week Johnathan Franklin was held to just over three yards per carry, his lowest output of 2012 — but it’s about grinding. Notre Dame carried the ball 44 times in its win over the Cardinal from a variety of rushers. UCLA has the ability to attack with both Franklin and Brett Hundley.
How frequent Mazzone rushes Hundley is an early development worth following. Oregon found success moving the ball with Marcus Mariota, who rolled off over seven yards per carry on the Cardinal defense. Notre Dame went at Stanford similarly with Everett Golson; he didn’t break for the same gains, but he did approach a season high with 15 carries, which played into the Fighting Irish game plan.
Stanford employed a similar ground oriented scheme last week, with seven ball carriers combining for 46 rushes. Stepfan Taylor was highly effective thanks to the Cardinal offense’s restored balance. Kevin Hogan has provided the Stanford offense a needed jolt since David Shaw inserted him into the starting lineup earlier this month. He can take off and run if needed, but his efficiency passing the ball is what has truly separated his performance from Josh Nunes’.
Hogan keeps defenses honest with a 73 percent completion rate, spreading out coverage to open more lanes for Taylor. UCLA’s big wins over USC and Arizona were keyed with early, aggressive pressure on the opposing quarterbacks — a similar game plan is essential tonight. Look for Eric Kendricks and Jordan Zumwalt dialed up on blitz packages in the initial stages to try and disrupt the freshman Hogan.
In each of those aforementioned wins earlier this month, the Bruins roared out of the gate quickly. UCLA cannot have the same sluggish start or the aggression of Stanford’s defense will indeed stand.