Deeming a September college football game "must-win" might be reactionary; hysterical, even. But in the case of Pac-12 counterparts UCLA and Stanford, both are about as close to must-win territory heading into Week 4 as teams can be at this juncture in the season.
Both are coming off of tough losses on the road against leading contenders for the Group of 5's bid to the New Year's Six bowls come season's end. Losing to opponents the caliber of San Diego State (in Stanford's case) or Memphis (in UCLA's) does not inherently put a team in make-or-break territory.
However, Stanford's loss was its second straight. UCLA heads into the Farm with the real threat of beginning a losing streak, facing an opponent it hasn't beaten in almost a decade. Add that Stanford is playing to avoid an 0-2 Pac-12 Conference hole, and the ante's upped further.
UCLA at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 23 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Stanford -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Bryce Love
The lineage of outstanding Stanford running backs continues in 2017, with Bryce Love putting up some of the most eye-popping numbers in all of college football. Even in the Cardinal's two early-season losses, Love is rolling up monster yardage with explosive plays.
UCLA's defense has been prone to giving up long-yardage plays so far this season, first against Texas A&M via the rush and last week via the pass at Memphis. With the Bruins dealing with a number of injuries — including the potential loss of standout freshman defensive end Jaelan Phillips — the threat for Love to go off Saturday is very real.
In UCLA's last visit to Stanford, Christian McCaffrey put together the first of many wildly impressive stat lines at the expense of the Bruins' defense. This is a different UCLA bunch, and it will want a different result against Love.
2. Costly turnovers
UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen leads the nation in touchdown passes through three games, piling up a staggering 13. He accounted for five scores last week at Memphis, adding a rushing touchdown to go with four passing touchdowns.
Rosen has been stellar so far this season; perhaps even better than advertised coming back from a shoulder injury. However, costly miscues loomed large in the loss at Memphis.
Rosen was picked off twice — his first two interceptions of the season — one of which went for a Tigers touchdown, and the other killing off a red-zone opportunity late in the fourth quarter. Stanford's a defense that thrives on takeaways, and sets up opposing quarterbacks to make mistakes; just two weeks ago, Cardinal defensive backs Justin Reid and Alijah Holder picked off USC's Sam Darnold.
UCLA must avoid turnovers, or risk playing into Stanford's hands. Conversely, the Cardinal must account for every potential Bruins pass catcher in order to cause Rosen to force throws.
Rosen's ability to distribute the ball among a wide variety of targets can spread a defense out. Darren Andrews is establishing himself as the top target, but Caleb Wilson and Jordan Lasley have proven themselves capable of important catches.
3. Others on offense stepping up
With Love in the Stanford backfield and Rosen behind center for UCLA, it's abundantly clear what the strength of each offense is. However, the team that can establish the other facet of its offense Saturday night should control the pace.
For UCLA, that's building off the positive momentum the run game got going against Memphis. The Bruins rushed for 170 yards at a solid 4.9 per carry clip, with starting running back Bola Olorunfunmi averaging a very strong 5.9 yards per attempt. Replicating that threat is critical to open the field for Rosen's passing attack.
Similarly, Stanford needs Keller Chryst to be a threat in order to keep UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley from stacking the box against Love. Chryst has big targets in J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who caught the game-winner to beat the Bruins last September in the Rose Bowl, as well as Connor Wedington, Dalton Schultz and Trenton Irwin.
The Cardinal's ability to establish this corps of pass catchers as threats early should give Love more room to run.
David Shaw's Stanford teams have been the bane of UCLA's existence throughout Jim Mora's tenure. The Bruins are 0-6 beginning with the 2012 season, including a heartbreaking loss in the Pac-12 Championship Game that year, and last season's encounter that came down to the final minutes.
UCLA draws this particular matchup at an inopportune time, with a number of injuries vexing the front seven. Add tackle Osa Odighizuwa sitting out the first half due to a targeting penalty, and the Bruins could face a serious problem in the Stanford rushing attack.
Prediction: Stanford 35, UCLA 27