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Stanford Cardinal vs. UCLA Bruins Preview and Prediction

Jim Mora

Jim Mora

Establish a road map for success, and others are bound to follow. For a while, the Pac-12's map was charted through Oregon, which used a versatile, explosive offense to win three straight conference titles from 2009-11.

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Stanford may not have completely knocked Oregon from the Pac-12 mountain top, but with three of the last four conference championships, there's at least a second path that leads there. Other programs have noticed, and introduced concepts that more closely resemble the Cardinal. UCLA is one such example.

The Bruins moved from spread concepts used under former offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, to a more power-based look with Kennedy Polamalu — a look that very much resembles Stanford's offense. Given the success the Cardinal have had against UCLA, the Bruins moving to an identity more closely resembling the defending conference champions is no surprise.

Stanford at UCLA

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Stanford -3

Three Things to Watch

1. Getting Tough on the Lines

Part of UCLA's philosophical shift included the use of a lead-blocking fullback and tight ends, designed to give the Bruins both a power-run game and more protection for quarterback Josh Rosen to operate from the pocket.

Those qualities may not be any more tested all season than Saturday night against a Stanford defense that thrives on the line of scrimmage. The Cardinal had seven sacks in the opener against Kansas State and four tackles for loss a week ago against USC. When not breaking into the backfield against the Trojans, Stanford controlled rushing lanes and gave quarterback Max Browne little time to throw.

UCLA's protection woes in recent years are well-established, and this season, the Bruins have allowed 20 tackles for a loss. Game-changing lineman Solomon Thomas acquainting himself with Rosen could be a real issue for the Bruins' offense.

On the flip side, a UCLA front seven with injury concerns must find ways to prevent Stanford from establishing the run — that means getting to Christian McCaffrey in the backfield. McCaffrey's run to the Heisman Trophy ceremony last year ostensibly began with 243-yard effort against UCLA. The Bruins' run defense looks to be improved since last season's debacle, but it needs to be considerably better to slow McCaffrey enough for a win.

Related: College Football's 10 Best Position Battles to Watch in Week 4

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2. A New Flavor of Stanford Offense

Vanilla's the most popular ice cream flavor for a reason: it's good. Vanilla served Stanford just fine last week, when head coach David Shaw scooped up a helping of it in the Cardinal's offensive look against USC. Stanford's physical domination on both lines allowed McCaffrey to carry the workload with 31 rushes for 172 yards and a touchdown. Change-of-pace back Bryce Love was used sparingly and the passing attack was limited.

Quarterback Ryan Burns connected with McCaffrey on a scoring wheel route, but otherwise, Stanford got by with limited passing offense.

Shaw's had something up his sleeve for past UCLA games. In 2014, McCaffrey got his first heavy usage as a running back, after spending a portion of his freshman season at slot receiver. The Cardinal also kicked off that game — their last against the Bruins in the Rose Bowl — with several deep passing routes using big-bodied targets. Look for Stanford to attack early with Michael Rector on something designed for a big play.

3. A Full 60 Minutes

Both UCLA and Stanford have struggled with a similar issue in wins. They've built multiple-score leads, but gone dormant offensively for stretches midway through and allowed their opponents to chip away.

UNLV rallied from a three-score deficit and cut it down to one in the second half two weeks ago, while BYU had an opportunity late last week when UCLA failed to snuff out hope with scoring drives after intermission.

Stanford managed to slam the door on USC last week, something the Cardinal didn't quite do until the final minutes in the opener vs. Kansas State. Still, Stanford went scoreless in the final frame against the Trojans, allowing the visitors the slightest glimmer of hope.

Final Analysis

Stanford's domination of this series looms large. The Cardinal serve as the Bruins' proverbial glass ceiling, the one barrier preventing them from a chance at true greatness in what has largely been a successful run under head coach Jim Mora.

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UCLA's sprinkling in of elements reminiscent of Stanford fits Mora's NFL background. It also suits Rosen and powerful running back Soso Jamabo. For the first time in the five seasons Stanford head coach David Shaw and Mora have shared the conference, UCLA looks to fight fire with fire, as it were. A defensive front seven that includes Eddie Vanderdoes and Jayon Brown has the athleticism to keep up with the Stanford run game, and the Bruins' deep secondary will make passing difficult for the inexperienced Burns.

However, UCLA may find scoring opportunities scarce. With Christian McCaffrey's explosiveness on both offense and special teams, the Bruins may be closer to Stanford than they have been in a while, but they have some ground still to cover in order to reach the Cardinal in the Pac-12 chase.

Prediction: Stanford 31, UCLA 24

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.