Stanford-UCLA Preview

LOS ANGELES (AP) – A 6-5 team is all that stands between No. 9 UCLA and the Pac-12 title game, but Stanford is no average team.

Well, no average defense, anyway.

The outstanding play of the Cardinal defense has been overshadowed by the team’s offensive shortcomings, but the Bruins are well aware of the challenge they face Friday at the Rose Bowl in their regular-season finale.

”They just play football,” quarterback Brett Hundley said. ”Big, physical team and they get at it.”

Stanford is allowing just 16.5 points and 290.2 yards per game, ranking seventh in the FBS in both categories, despite the graduation of several players that formed the backbone of consecutive conference champion and Rose Bowl teams.

That group held the explosive UCLA spread offense to a total of 51 points in three meetings over the previous two seasons, all Stanford wins. Last season’s 24-10 loss at Stanford was particularly ugly, with UCLA held to 266 yards of total offense and Hundley throwing two interceptions and taking four sacks.

”We just have to play better,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said of his team’s Stanford struggles. ”If that’s the common thread, yeah, we have to play better. We have to protect the ball. We have to take care of our quarterback.”

Hundley’s protection has improved dramatically during UCLA’s current five-game winning streak, allowing eight sacks during that span. Not coincidentally, redshirt sophomore Conor McDermott became the starting left tackle after consecutive losses to Utah and No. 3 Oregon in which Hundley was dropped 12 times.

Factor in the dominant one-two punch of Paul Perkins and Hundley running the ball and the UCLA offensive line is playing as well as it has during Mora’s three seasons in Westwood.

”Something happened after that Oregon game for our team,” Mora said. ”If they want to say it relieved the pressure, that’s fine. I just feel like we refocused and gave ourselves a break maybe. We’ve been playing pretty good football since then and getting better on a weekly basis.”

One fewer day of preparation might limit opportunities to continue that improvement, but could come with its own advantages. After dismantling crosstown rival USC 38-20, UCLA (9-2, 6-2) had to immediately transition to preparing for Stanford rather than soaking in the admiration following a dominant win.

”Our players recognize this is a short week and we don’t have any time to spare,” Mora said. ”I thought they came out with tremendous focus and I appreciate that maturity to put a big win behind them and move on to the next challenge.”

That challenge is all about a Stanford defense that is among the best in the nation, even if no one has noticed.

And while Mora wouldn’t rank where Stanford compares to other defenses his team has played this season, his praise and admiration for the Cardinal may have revealed the answer.

”I just look at what they do and they are a very good defense,” Mora said. ”They are solid, they are physical. They play with their shoulders square. They are good tacklers and disciplined. We’re going to have to be very precise in everything that we do in order to get yards against them.”

The challenge for Stanford’s struggling offense is a little more difficult this week.

The Cardinal (6-5, 4-4) will be without top playmaker Ty Montgomery. Cardinal coach David Shaw said Montgomery will sit out with a right shoulder injury but is hopeful to return for the team’s bowl game.

The wide receiver and All-American kick returner was injured in the first quarter of a 38-17 win at California last Saturday when he was tackled hard by two defenders after a 14-yard catch. It’s the second time in the last year that an injury to Montgomery’s right shoulder has sidelined the NFL prospect.

Stanford has the lowest-scoring offense in the conference, averaging 25.2 points, and Montgomery has been the unit’s biggest bright spot.

The senior leads the Cardinal with 61 catches for 604 yards and three touchdowns. He has run for 144 yards and a score on 23 carries, and he has returned two punts for TDs.

Montgomery also is averaging 25.2 yards returning kickoffs and has taken snaps as a wildcat quarterback in most games.

”I think he covers more ground than anybody in college football between punt return, kickoff return, running and receiving,” Shaw said.

Shaw added that Francis Owusu and Jordan Pratt will receive more playing time in Montgomery’s absence alongside regulars Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector. Kelsey Young and Christian McCaffrey will return kickoffs, and Barry Sanders and McCaffrey will field punts against UCLA.

Stanford center Graham Shuler said he spoke to Montgomery about dealing with the mental anguish of being sidelined by providing support to the teammates replacing him.

”We talked about that a little bit, how he can really take advantage of some of this time to pour into those guys’ study habits and training habits and stuff like that," Shuler said. "Ty’s going to do whatever he can to impact this game.”