A dominant Week 1 win over LSU, on the heels of a blowout over Hawaii, had some projecting big things for UCLA.
A 40-37 loss in the final minute to a good team hardly derails the Bruins' season, but back-to-back defeats and a hole to start Pac-12 play abruptly changes the narrative.
UCLA (2-1) aims to avoid that predicament against a program that's given it fits over the last decade-plus, Stanford. Before a UCLA rout in 2019, the Cardinal won 11 games straight beginning in 2009.
The Bruins are 1-2 against David Shaw's Cardinal since Chip Kelly's arrival, with the two losses being high-scoring shootouts. While it didn't appear Stanford (2-1, 1-0 Pac-12) was going to be capable of having many offensive eruptions when it sputtered Week 1 against Kansas State, the Cardinal have since rallied for 42 and 41 points in romps over USC and Vanderbilt.
Playing its first home game of the 2021 season, and first in any capacity on The Farm since Nov. 14, 2020, expect Stanford to come out with energy matching that of an urgent UCLA bunch.
No. 24 UCLA at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 25 at 6 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: UCLA -4.5
When UCLA Has the Ball
Running backs Brittain Brown and Zach Charbonnet gashed Hawaii and LSU in the first two weeks in a manner reminiscent of great rushing tandems on past Chip Kelly teams.
Fresno State sold out on limiting the duo. It didn't prevent UCLA from racking up yards or points, but the Bruins were slow to get going with such a previously potent part of their attack rendered ineffective.
Faced with a Stanford defense that's allowed at least 187 rushing yards in each of its first three games, look for UCLA to try reestablishing its talented tandem aggressively in the early going.
At the same time, the Cardinal secondary is dealing with uncertainty. Safety Noah Williams is scratched, and cornerbacks Zahran Manley and Ethan Bonner are questionable.
"It's just a thing that, no matter what, you're backup, you're scout team, you've got to be ready," said cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly, who has two interceptions including a pick-six this season. "We're ready. I have no lack of confidence who steps up in my [defensive backs] room."
Should UCLA exploit the absences in the Stanford secondary, look for Dorian Thompson-Robinson to continue hooking up with Kyle Philips for big gains. Philips was outstanding in the loss to Fresno State.
When Stanford Has the Ball
Since Shaw made the call for Tanner McKee to start at quarterback unencumbered, the Cardinal offense has erupted for 83 points in two combined games.
He's completed 50 of 70 pass attempts with five touchdowns and most importantly, no interceptions. McKee is also mobile — not a dual-threat quarterback, but able to extend plays when moving out of the pocket, and capable of carrying the ball in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
McKee has rushed for a touchdown in each of the last two games.
"Tanner McKee ... has done a really nice job the last two weeks," Kelly said.
McKee will have to play a lights-out game Saturday with Stanford's running-back room ravaged by injury. Austin Jones is out, as well as Casey Filkins and E.J. Smith. That leaves Nathaniel Peat, who has been explosive in the two wins with averages of 19.2 and 10.2 yards per carry, although his workload has been limited in each contest.
Last December's meeting was an instant classic that either team could have won. Expect the 2021 installment to be as evenly matched.
Stanford seemed to find its identity in Week 2 with McKee assuming the reins, but the bevy of injuries will test the Cardinal's depth against a physical UCLA team eager to show last week's loss was an aberration.
Fresno State succeeded in punching the Bruins in the mouth early and stunned UCLA with some long-yardage plays. Stanford followed a similar script in its blowout of USC, but won't catch UCLA similarly off-guard.
Prediction: UCLA 31, Stanford 23
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— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.