Rarely does a football team have to face an opponent two weeks in a row, but with UCLA and Stanford squaring off in this Friday’s Pac-12 Championship game, some intricate planning is now required.
No. 16 UCLA absorbed a 35-17 loss to the Cardinal last Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl. The good news: the Bruins have now seen the eighth-ranked Cardinal’s jumbo option package on offense. They have taken the hard hits from a defense that limited the Pac-12’s second-best rushing attack to just 73 rushing yards.
The bad news: The Cardinals has seen what UCLA has to offer as well.
“It think that any advantages you have by playing a team the second time around, they’re kind of wiped out by the fact that they have the same advantage,” said UCLA head coach Jim Mora. “So once again, it just comes down to executing.”
It was the execution that fell short against Stanford. Dropped passes, costly penalties and sloppy mistakes left the Bruins playing nearly the entire game behind the chains and behind on the scoreboard. More than once, quarterback Brett Hundley escaped a collapsing pocket only to find himself back in it, instead of rolling out.
The jumbo package proved especially difficult to defend. Defensive confusion was evident as the Cardinal did what the Bruins couldn’t: execute a complex package that fools the defense with its vast options on all ends of the field.
“They put those big physical guys on the field so you gear up for the run, but then they pull the ball and go to their play-action game,” Mora said. “We’ve got to just read our keys, execute our technique and when we get into position to make a play we just make it.”
While the team is confident they are making the correct adjustments to defend that package, the area of improvement most being stressed is penalties. The Bruins lost 135 yards on 12 penalties with ones in the third quarter proving especially devastating.
Stanford, on the other hand, played efficient football, losing just 55 yards on half the amount of penalties.
“Penalties made it longer yardage which gave the defense nothing to worry about except the pass,” said wide receiver Shaquelle Evans. “We know that to make our adjustments this week we’ve got to refocus and come out with fundamentals and techniques so we don’t make those penalties.”
Faces in the Crowd Once a staple in the Rick Neuheisel era, the Bruins had all but done away with crowd noise at practice until this week. On Monday the Bruins practiced with crowd noise for the first time since spring practices as a tool to help them keep focused.
“It wasn’t because necessarily we were anticipating what the crowd might be like, it was really just to pose some distractions for our players that they have to fight through,” Mora said.
But UCLA has had some form of distraction and noise throughout the season, as the construction on Pauley Pavilion was done right outside the confines of Spaulding Field. When the construction wrapped up two weeks ago, a sandblaster on the sidewalk right outside the field kicked in, giving them no reprieve.
“Pauley construction had acted as some crowd noise for a few months.” Mora said.
When asked if he remembered what the crowd was like on The Farm, Mora couldn’t remember. The only thing he remembered about his last trip to Stanford was facing a senior quarterback named John Elway in 1982.
“That was the last time I played at Stanford,” Mora said, before adding. “Gosh, I’m old.”
Mora reiterated that the location of the game doesn’t matter as long as his squad is prepared.
“What’s given us the success that we’ve had on the road is just focusing on the stuff that we can control and our routine.”
All-Conference The Bruins placed 14 players on the Pac-12 all-conference team, but there was one in particular that Mora feels deserves a little more than an all-conference nod: junior linebacker Anthony Barr.
“I wouldn’t say that he’s almost an All-American caliber player, I would say that he is an All-American caliber player,” Mora said. “He’s been the most impactful defensive player in the Pac-12, and from the limited exposure I’ve had to other players in the nation, he’s as impactful as anybody I’ve seen.”
Barr, in his first season at linebacker, is tied for ninth in Division I in both sacks and tackles for loss. After previously playing two seasons as a running back, Barr moved to the position in spring but was unable to practice after suffering a hamstring injury. Mora said he has never seen a player make a position transition as smooth as Barr at any level of the game and is especially impressed with how adept he became in such a short amount of time.
“To be able to come out here and go through everything at San Bernardino and have the type of season that he had just says a lot about a couple things,” Mora said. “Number one being how intelligent he is, because he had to pick up a lot of that stuff through film study and watching guys on the field. So he really paid attention and concentrated. Number two, about his motivation and his work ethic, because you don’t do the things he did without being highly motivated and having a tremendous work ethic.”
Mora also cited the level of respect that Barr has for his position coach, Jeff Ulbrich, and defensive coordinator Lou Spanos.
“I think you’ve got to give some credit to the guys that have helped him along the way,” Mora said. “The other players that have played the position longer and given him tips, and then coach Ulbrich and coach Spanos who have worked so tirelessly with him.”