Two obstacles have proven insurmountable in UCLA’s quest for a Pac-12 Conference championship under head coach Jim Mora. First are home losses. Second is Stanford.
In 2013, the Bruins were denied a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game when they lost at home to Arizona State. Rose Bowl defeats vexed UCLA throughout the 2014 season, with all three of the Bruins’ losses coming in Pasadena.
This year’s UCLA team continued the trend two weeks ago, losing to an unranked and previously sputtering Arizona State team, 38-23.
UCLA follows it up tonight with its date against Stanford, an annual rite of passage for the Bruins that’s been about as much fun as a root canal.
Stanford boasts seven straight wins over UCLA dating back to the 2009 season. Four of those losses came under Mora, including two that directly denied UCLA conference championship opportunities. The first was a 27-24 final in the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game, an instant classic and game Mora said “feels like a long time ago,” which is also the closest the Bruins have been to the Cardinal in recent meetings.
Both meetings since were decided by multiple touchdowns, including last November’s 31-10 Stanford romp in the final game of the regular season. The home loss denied UCLA a berth in the conference title game.
“We had a bad game and they played well,” is how Mora summed up last year’s meeting, speaking of it during Tuesday’s Pac-12 coaches teleconference call.
And how. Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan played what was then arguably the best game of his career, going 16-of-19 for 234 yards and two touchdowns, and rushing for another 46 yards.
A rough Week 1 at Northwestern may have drawn attention away from Hogan, but Stanford’s senior quarterback has since carried his positive play from last year’s UCLA meeting over into 2015. In the last four games — all Stanford wins and all by double-digits — Hogan has thrown for nine touchdowns and 1,000 yards.
And he’s done so playing on a less-than-100 percent healthy ankle.
Mora praised Stanford’s efficiency, which starts with the veteran Hogan and relies heavily on utilityman Christian McCaffrey. The sophomore McCaffrey really began his breakout as a primary weapon in the Cardinal offense last season against — you guessed it — UCLA.
McCaffrey finished with 64 yards rushing and 21 receiving in November’s meeting, and comes into Thursday’s contest ranked second in the Football Bowl Subdivision in all-purpose yards at 229.8 per game.
McCaffrey’s riding a three-game streak of surpassing 100 yards rushing, all against Pac-12 defenses. His explosiveness out of the backfield as a ball-carrier or pass-catcher mirrors that of Arizona State’s Demario Richard. Richard attacked a UCLA defense sans All-American linebacker Myles Jack in both phases, rolling up 79 rushing yards and 55 receiving to set the Sun Devils’ tone.
Containment of McCaffrey is job No. 1 for the UCLA tonight.
Just as important on the other side of the ball is freshman quarterback Josh Rosen’s response to playing in a high-pressure situation on The Farm. The celebrated youngster has looked every bit the part of freshman in his debut campaign, alternating between stellar—as he was against Arizona—and rattled, as he looked much of the night vs. Arizona State.
The Sun Devils relied heavily on an aggressive, blitz-happy defensive strategy that forced Rosen to make snap decisions. He’ll got no reprieve tonight against arguably the best blitzing defense in the Pac-12.
Stanford’s Blake Martinez is the latest in an impressive run of Cardinal linebackers, some of whom became well acquainted with the UCLA backfield in the last few years. If Martinez lifts the velvet rope on another #PartyInTheBackfield, UCLA can expect another mistake-plagued outing from Rosen — and another loss to Stanford.