In theory, the difficult portion of the schedule for Stanford was supposed to begin last week.
It was the Cardinal versus USC, a clash of dichotomous styles, a former giant attempting to reclaim its status against the only school in the Pac-12 still considered one. It was a matchup of the two teams with the highest – and exact same – odds of winning the conference title.
It wasn’t close.
Stanford was effective and methodical in its 27-10 thumping of USC. Difficult portion of the schedule, you said? Not last week.
Perhaps this week, then, will mark the beginning of the Cardinal’s trials, in its first road game against a UCLA team that has been disappointing yet is just one fourth-down conversion from being 3-0.
Saturday presents an opportunity for the Bruins to legitimize themselves against a Stanford team they seem perfectly designed to beat, if only because they might be the only team that has a chance to contain the firework show that is Christian McCaffrey.
It won’t go unnoticed that McCaffrey decimated UCLA for 369 all-purpose yards in the Cardinal’s 56-35 rout over the Bruins in 2015, and that the final score hardly indicates just how soundly Stanford beat the Bruins. This is a different year, though, and UCLA’s defensive line is anchored once more by Eddie Vanderdoes, whose presence alone has significantly improved the Bruins’ run defense.
Last week, in a 17-14 win over BYU, the Bruins limited the Cougars to 23 yards on 25 carries. While BYU boasts no Heisman candidates in the backfield, it is no small feat to hold a fairly good team to nearly one yard per carry. For the first time all season, Stanford may have to open it up through the air, if only to keep the defense honest and give McCaffrey some breathing room.
Beyond that, there is the factor of playing away from home, the first time Stanford will do so this year. Quarterback Ryan Burns has never had to start in a hostile environment, particularly one like the Rose Bowl.
“It’s going to say a lot about our mentality, about our preparation and our maturity,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “It’ll be a different environment, a different locker room, a different pregame setup, a different field, and a different sun location… Are we strong enough mentally and emotionally to come back and play our best when [UCLA] plays well there? We’ll see.”
Discipline has never been an issue for a Shaw-coached team, and he is, oddly enough, not the coach who should be worried about the play of his quarterback. UCLA sophomore Josh Rosen is widely regarded as one of the best NFL draft prospects in college football – but there’s only so much he can do if he’s not on his feet.
In the last three matchups between the two teams, UCLA hasn’t recorded a single sack, while the Cardinal have brought down Bruins quarterbacks Brett Hundley and Rosen a combined 12 times. Thus far this year, if Rosen doesn’t get going, neither does the UCLA offense.
Should that happen – and given the body of work from Stanford so far, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if it does – we will have to push back the “difficult portion” of Stanford’s schedule yet another week.