Henry McKenna

Stanford Fights For Relevance Against UCLA

Created on Oct. 19, 2013 12:20 AM EST

The cracks in the armor had been forming. It’s just that no one had been looking for them, not from Stanford’s defense.

The vaunted defense and supposed nationally elite includes four possible first-round prospects. We thought they would step up when they need to. They did in the first half against ASU. It was easy to ignore the second half of that game, the allowed yardage to Army’s rushing attack, the poor overall numbers pass defense (256.3 yards per game) and rush defense (123.3).

The proof was in the pudding. I guess we were all squeezing our noses, thinking that last year’s batch still tasted good.

The loss to Utah was yet another heartbreaker for Stanford. This was the year. Wasn't it?

It happened last year against Washington and in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State. But Stanford’s pursuit of perfection was not just lost, it was squandered. Utah is not a better team. They just played better on that Saturday.

During the last five years, Stanford’s program has improved and they still have that opportunity this year. The truth is that going to the BCS championship game might be skipping a step. They haven’t had a one-loss team since 2010 with Andrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh. Going undefeated in the competitive Pac-12 was a lofty goal, even for this talented team.

The Cardinal still can better the program. The only problem is that the Pac-12 is getting crowded quickly. It’s two-sided equation. Though it will be difficult to get wins, the deep conference allows Stanford to rebound in resounding fashion. They can call it an upset and be done with Utah; they can beat Oregon and UCLA.

This week is the pivot point for Stanford’s season. Will they settle as a two-loss team stuck college football's gray area of relevance? Or can they establish themselves as a consistent power in the Pac-12?

The solid footing will have to start on The Farm against Brett Hundley and Anthony Barr’s UCLA Bruins.

UCLA looks like a more elite ASU and Washington, two teams that have exposed Stanford. The once sneaky-good defense is now getting national attention and commendation. Brett Hundley — like Tommy Kelly and Keith Price — is a secondary’s nightmare. He has great chemistry with senior Shaquelle Evans and sophomore Devin Fuller.

UCLA’s pass rush in Keenan Graham and Anthony Barr is one of the nation’s best tandems, boasting nine combined sacks. Barr, however, is not just a sack artist. He’s a threat all over the field.

The Bruins lost to Stanford twice last year, though they played Stanford better the second time and lost by three points. Stanford relied on turnovers and their rushing attack that averaged 195.5 yards in the two games. Hundley threw an interception in both games and managed only one touchdown. This year, his stats will not look anything like that. 

Stanford’s defense has not shown they can consistently generate turnovers. They've done a terrible job of that in the past and it’s losing them games. The offense averages only 1.3 turnovers a game. But the defense can only generate 1.3. The team breaks even, which would not be a problem if they hadn’t relied upon it so much last year with almost two per game.

What’s worse, the Cardinal rushing attack also has digressed in the last two games. Their average per carry has fallen from 5.3 yards to 4.6. The offense begins and ends with the running game, so their No. 42 ranking will not suffice. As has been scrutinized all week, Stanford attempted to throw the ball for three of its final four plays on the goal line against Utah. They have lost their identity. The flashy big plays are great when they present themselves. But if they don’t, all should not be lost. Where is the patient Stanford of old?

If Stanford feeds Anthony Wilkerson, Tyler Gaffney and especially Ty Montgomery, this offense will once again find its rhythm. Montgomery is averaging 22.2 yards per touch. Start with the run, but sling him the rock.

Oddly enough, Stanford almost has the element of surprise. UCLA doesn’t know what Stanford team is going to show up. The defense should be stout. They offense should run the ball hard. The passing game should provide a few big plays. Should is a word that has failed Stanford this year. Should won’t make them Pac-12 champions.

Follow Henry on Twitter @McKennAnalysis

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