UCLA tries to avoid its 12th consecutive loss to Stanford
Since going on a three-game losing streak — the longest skid of David Shaw's tenure as head coach — Stanford's come on with a pair of Pac-12 wins. The Cardinal's last time out was an upset defeat of Washington, which threw the floundering team right back into the mix for the Pac-12 North.
This week, it's Stanford's opponent that is aiming to end a couple of losing skids of their own. UCLA scored its first win of the season in a wild, historic comeback at Washington State on Sept. 21 but dropped back-to-back games at Arizona and to Oregon State since. The Bruins come into Stanford on Thursday night sporting that two-game losing streak, as well as an 11-game drought vs. the Cardinal.
Last year's 49-42 shootout at the Rose Bowl was the closest matchup since the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game came down to a field goal. This year's matchup could be a showdown of two teams with quarterbacks who started the season second on the depth chart, with starters Dorian Thompson-Robinson and K.J. Costello both questionable due to injury.
UCLA at Stanford
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 17 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: Stanford -8.5
When UCLA Has the Ball
After scoring exactly 14 points in each of its first three games, the UCLA offense seemed to figure it all out Week 4 in the second half at Washington State. Thompson-Robinson showed why he was the highest-rated dual-threat quarterback in the signing class of 2018, Demetric Felton electrified in every phase, Joshua Kelley returned to 2018 form, Chase Cota and Devin Asiasi were excellent pass catchers — it was an almost perfect performance.
Recapturing that magic has been difficult in the two games since. UCLA stagnated again the following week at Arizona, mustering only 17 points in the loss. Thompson-Robinson came out of the game due to injury and has yet to return, and Austin Burton was effective in leading a final drive into field-goal range, but the lack of points before those moments were glaring. The Bruins' offense started slowly in Burton's first start on Oct. 5 vs. Oregon State but finished with a flurry.
If it's Burton behind the center, the quarterback looked confident in both of his appearances. His pass catchers seemed to click with him by the second half of the Oregon State game, though the Stanford defense is a much different animal than Oregon State's. This isn't a Cardinal D of years past, but it isn't lacking for playmakers. The group came alive in the Oct. 5 upset of Washington, particularly in the pass rush.
While the stat line is just two sacks and three tackles for loss, the Stanford front got into the backfield routinely to make life difficult on Huskies quarterback Jacob Eason. Against a Bruins offense that's allowed 15 sacks, pass protection could be a concern no matter if it's Thompson-Robinson or Burton starting.
When Stanford Has the Ball
K.J. Costello was the Pac-12's second-most prolific passer in 2018, buoying Stanford to nine wins in a season where the run was wildly inconsistent. Costello came into 2019 a dark-horse Heisman contender, but after taking a dirty hit to the head Week 1, he missed the Cardinal's Week 2 affair with USC. Costello returned for a blowout loss at UCF but sustained a hand injury ahead of the Oregon State game.
Davis Mills, who started Week 2 and played a strong half, returned to the starting lineup at Oregon State and was dynamic against the Beavers. He followed up that performance of three touchdowns passing and one receiving with a solid 293 yards and a score against Washington. Perhaps more heartening for the Cardinal moving forward, the run game came alive against a stout Huskies defense. Cameron Scarlett rolled up 151 yards with a touchdown.
UCLA's rush defense hasn't been great — the Bruins rank eighth in the Pac-12 with 162.7 yards allowed per game — but the surprising struggles of the secondary are the bigger issue. Tight end Colby Parkinson is a matchup nightmare, and Michael Wilson has come on strong recently.
Rewind less than a month, and this one might have looked like the most likely shot UCLA had at snapping the streak in some time. Stanford limped to its third straight loss in an offensively anemic 21-6 defeat at Oregon the same day the Bruins seemed to figure it all out to rally at Washington State.
The games since suggest otherwise. Stanford's offense has two very strong outings to its credit, and while one is against a porous Oregon State defense, the other coming against Washington suggests this unit may have life. UCLA's defensive woes need to get corrected in a hurry, otherwise it will be a long night on The Farm.
Prediction: Stanford 31, UCLA 21
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.