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September 30, 2011

Bruins travel to Palo Alto - A bridge too far?

Okay, this week it's Stanford. Up there. Leland Stanford Junior Farm and all that. Stanford, California, USA. Rate No. 4 in the nation. Quarterback who would have been the top pick in the NFL draft had he come out a year ago. That Stanford.

So, the big question this week appears to be: Should the Bruins even bother to show up?

Wouldn't a 1-0 loss look better in the record books than what they realistically can expect to achieve on the field, three touchdown underdogs and all that?

Our answer is no, it wouldn't be better and who cares how it looks? And yes, we do expect the Bruins to show up. Meaning actually show up, not just mail in an appearance.

The odds aren't in the Bruins' favor but after a horrid start to the season, marked by an inability on defense to carry out assignments, pursue ball carriers and finish tackles, playing a top team like Stanford gives the Bruins a chance to show they're getting the message and are capable of being so much stronger, tougher, better.

Stanford football has come a long way. In just a few short years they are ranked fourth in the nation and have a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback - no doubt the Heisman Trophy candidate if they continue to win. Stanford fans realize they are just a few years away from losing seasons. The excellence of the job former Head Coach Jim Harbaugh did in so short a time simply can't be overstated.

You know the history, but Stanford once again this year really is for real. All around. Let's take a closer look.

Offense
You could pretty much focus an entire offensive article on the 6-4, 235-pound red-shirt senior quarterback; many have. Andrew Luck started the season in 7th place all time at Stanford with 5,913 yards. He is fourth all time with 45 touchdown passes and has compiled 6,720 yards in total offense which puts him in fifth place on the all time list. He is the all time leader in career completion percentage at .644 percent. He has the highest winning percentage in Stanford history - 80 percent. There is much more including being named, as a sophomore, the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year. He is a finalist and favorite for just about every quarterback and Offense Player award there is.

Stanford started the season with three straight victories over San Jose State, Duke and a decent Arizona team on the road, and they've done it all with ease. Stanford was expected to win the first two easily but it was thought that playing in Tucson might provide a significant test.

In the Arizona game Stanford ran for 242 net yards while yielding only 51. They were led by 5-11, 208 pound running back Stepfan Taylor who had a career best 153 yards running. The Cards also threw for 325 net yards, amassing a total of 567 against what is supposed to be a decent defense for the U of A Wildcats. It was the 11th straight win for the Cardinal which is currently the longest win streak in the nation and is their longest since the 1939-1941 seasons when they won 13 straight.

Any offense starts up front where they are big, strong and very quick. The offensive line averages 6-5, 291-pounds and includes a senior, two juniors and two sophomores. None of these players had a ranking better that three stars coming out of high school. It's called having an eye for talent, "coaching" and getting to do it with smart young men who were attracted to and molded by a very good - and very tough - head man in Harbaugh, now head coach of the NFL San Francisco 49ers.

Starting at center is former two-star redshirt Sam Schwartzstein. Schwartzstein is the only guy on the line under 6-5, coming in at 6-3, 284 and is a big reason the running game works. His line-mates include David DeCastro (6-5, 307 pounds), Jonathan Martin (6-5, 307), David Yankey (6-5, 305) and Cameron Fleming (6-6, 299). Line them up with a tight end who stands 6-6 or even 6-8 and that is one tall offensive line. Their height causes problems for opposing defenses as their running backs can hide behind it and wait for holes to open.

DeCastro is up for the Lombardi Award and was first team All-Pac-10 last year. Martin is a nominee for the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award.

Stanford's O-Line is a solid example of a line that operates as a solid unit rather than a collection of talented individuals.

The wide receiving corps for the Cardinal is as good as they were last year. Senior Chris Owusu (6-2, 200 pounds) is the leading receiver. He already has 16 receptions for 227 yards and one touchdown, averaging 14.2 yards per catch.

The Cardinal also features three very talented tight ends. Zach Ertz (6-6, 244) is the second leading receiver on the team. He is a player Ucla recruited and wanted badly. And for very good reason. So far this season Ertz has caught 9 passes for 127 yards and is tied for the team lead with 3 touchdowns. He averages 14.1 yards per reception. Mackey Award candidate senior Coby Fleener (6-6, 244 pounds) is also tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions with three and is averaging 22.7 yards per reception. Huge 6-8, 255-pound Levine Toilolo is the third.

You have to add the fullback to your thinking in this area as 6-4, 240-pound sophomore fullback Ryan Hewitt is tied for second on the team with 9 receptions for 105 yards and 1 touchdown.

Stanford of course is a high powered offensive machine having scored more than 40 points twelve times in its last 28 games and averaged 41.7 points in the last 15 games. Luck does an outstanding job of spreading the ball around. Stanford's playbook gives every skill position player a chance to be a big contributor.

The team set a school record a year ago with 524 points and is on pace to match or better that this year. Stanford is a match-up nightmare for defenses. They have one player under 6-1 and he is the running-back. The wide-outs and tight ends are all tall, strong and fast. Nobody has been able to stop them yet.

Defense
In three games so far this season Stanford has allowed only 27 points. Total. Moreover, Stanford has allowed just 1.23 yards per rushing attempt. That is easily the best in the country. Note that five years ago, in 2006, Stanford ranked 117th out of 119 teams in rush defense. Pretty much from last to first and on Saturday this strength points directly at Ucla's strength, its reborn rushing offense.

Stanford head coach David Shaw inherited a team built for success based on taking young men of intelligence, toughness, dedication and intensity and being able to coach them up and turn them into Pac-12 stars no matter what their ratings out of high school. And it's working.

Ben Gardner, a two-star recruit out of high school, checks in at 6-4, 263-pounds and is the starter at defensive end. Joining Gardner up front are 6-2, 287-pound junior Terrence Stephens at nose tackle and red-shirt senior Matthew Masifilo (6-3, 278 pounds) at the other DL in Stanford's 3-4 defensive alignment.

Running a 3-4, Stanford depends a great deal on their linebackers to close the gaps. In this regard, Stanford did suffer one huge loss in their victory over Arizona, All-American candidate linebacker Shayne Skov is out for the season with a left knee injury.

Other than quarterback Luck, no one is more important to this team than was Skov. More than just his individual ability, as the middle linebacker he was responsible for all the calls on defense and was the unquestioned vocal leader of the defense.

Fortunately for the Cardinal they enjoyed a bye week between the Arizona and UCLA games. They needed this time to scheme in the wake of losing Skov. They may go with an additional inside or outside backer, listing those alternatives on their game-week depth chart. Candidates to start at the four linebacker positions this week are Max Bergen, Jarek Lancaster or A.J. Tarpley, Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy. Whoever plays, they will be big, ranging from 6-2 to 6-6 and from 221 on the outside to 244 in the middle.

The defensive backfield starts three seniors and one sophomore. The lone sophomore, Barry Browning (6-1, 176) has seen lots of time on the field. He had three starts and appeared in all 13 games for the Cardinal as a true freshman.

The defensive backfield is led by All-Pac-10 senior Delano Howell. Howell (5-11, 198) led the team with five interceptions last year. He was fourth in tackles with 60 (46 solo). He isn't all that big but he hits hard and is very athletic.

This is a good Stanford defense and the Bruins will have to be on top of their game to score points against it. Stanford held Arizona to 51 net yards rushing on 2.2 yards per carry. They can be passed on as demonstrated by Arizona which did throw for 282 yards playing catch-up. But, despite playing on the road against a roused up opponent, Stanford essentially just wore Arizona down and won the game easily.

One final note: third down was the Bruins' Achilles heel at least in its first three games. It's not good news that this year Stanford has held the opposition to only 10 first downs on 42 third down attempts, an average of just 24 percent.

The Bruins will have to play their best game in two years to defeat this Stanford team. Heck, Ucla may have to play their best game in two years just to keep this one close. It's possible the Bruins could turn the season around big-time, score wins over the likes of Cal, Colorado, Arizona, Washington State, even arch-rival USC. But if they are to score a victory at Stanford, in a game that figures to be a bridge just too far, they will indeed have shocked the college football world.

Ted Bloom contributed to this story.


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