Over the past couple of seasons, Pasadena has become a nice home away from home for the Stanford Cardinal with the Rose Bowl serving as an ideal escape from those notorious Northern California winters.
On Friday, the Cardinal returns to Pasadena bruised, tattered, and lacking the luster they brought to previous trips. Coming into town with a 6-5 record, it doesn't seem like Stanford has much to play for: Oregon has run away with the division faster than Marcus Mariota eluded the Stanford defense and the Cardinal's chances of making the playoffs (minus Condi pulling some strings in the selection committee meeting) are nonexistent.
Nevertheless, Stanford has a lot to play for against UCLA this Friday. Squaring off against a top-ten team on national television (bet ABC would like to have that one back) is a big deal, regardless of your record. The Bruins will likely provide the last chance for Stanford to make a statement against an elite opponent all season, and that opportunity is motivation in itself.
Ahead of Friday's matchup, here are a few thoughts on the state of Stanford's program as the Cardinal look to prepare for UCLA with an eye towards the future as well.
Stanford's Last Regular Season Opportunity to Beat a Ranked Team
After being thrust into the thick of the action against a talented Oregon State squad in 2012, Kevin Hogan started his career 11-0 against ranked opponents, culminating in a blowout win over Arizona State in last year's Pac-12 Championship. Since that game in the desert, however, Hogan and Stanford have gone 0-6 against ranked teams, including all five such matchups this season.
There is definitely an element of luck in knocking off 11 ranked teams in a row - especially with the number of one-possession games Stanford managed to squeak out over the last couples of years - but finishing a season without a win over any ranked opponents would be a major disappointment for a team with an elite defense and a envious amount of talent on offense. With the way Stanford was able to crush teams with much less talent like UC Davis and Army, the Cardinal's struggles against ranked teams really boil down to a lack of execution and questionable decisions down the stretch. Friday will be one last chance to right the ship.
Picking up that elusive win over a ranked opponent won't be an easy task. The Bruins need to win to clinch the Pac-12 South and they just finished sending USC into an existential crisis with a thorough dismantling. However, the taller the task, the higher the reward. If Stanford can pull this one out at the Rose Bowl, this season will be much less harder to stomach looking back. It could very well be the game that signals Stanford's transition from rebuilding back to the top of the conference going forward.
Showing Off the Wide Receiver Depth
Star wide receiver Ty Montgomery will be out against UCLA with a sprained shoulder that kept him out of the majority of the Big Game. Montgomery is undoubtedly Stanford's best offensive player and one of the most potent punt and kick returners in the country. Losing Ty ahead of a matchup against a top-10 team will hurt, but it should provide several younger contributors with valuable playing time and give the Cardinal a glimpse of life after #7.
In particular, Friday's game will be a great opportunity for Stanford's older receivers, Jordan Pratt and Jeff Trojan, to finish their careers with a memorable performance and, more importantly, for the Cardinal's younger receivers, Francis Owusu and Michael Rector, to be the next men up.
Owusu has been mostly invisible this season, but he showed flashes of his sky-high potential with a 4-catch, 46-yard performance against Cal. With a 6-foot-3 frame and elite speed, Owusu will likely play a huge role in Stanford's future plans. Why not give him the keys to the playmaking engine with Montgomery out?
The same goes for Rector. The junior wideout led the team in receiving against USC last season, but he has been reduced to a one-dimensional, deep ball threat this season, conveniently just as the deep ball has disappeared from the Cardinal offense. As he has shown in flashes throughout his career, Rector is a crisp route runner, who has excelled in short-yardage situations in the past, including against Utah this season. On Friday, Rector should certainly see more action running intermediate routes and taking over Montgomery's role on quick-hitters to the outside. Going forward, Rector looks to figure as a vital receiver within the offense and Friday's game might be a good starting point.
In addition, Hogan seemed much more inclined to go through his progressions with his favorite target Montgomery out against Cal. It will be very interesting to see how the distribution of receiving targets changes without Stanford leading receiver.
Can the Defense Continue Forcing Turnovers?
The one knock on Stanford's otherwise top-notch defense has been the lack of turnovers forced. Again, luck plays a huge component. This season the Cardinal has forced 10 fumbles, but have only recovered 4. Sometimes the ball just doesn't bounce your way. In addition, Lance Anderson's unit hasn't had the luxury of playing with the leads that last year's defense often had to work with, which has also limited the unit's opportunities for takeaways.
Nevertheless, turnovers are game-changers. We saw their benefits in Stanford's comfortable Big Game win when they helped the defense recover from mistakes or give the offense outstanding field position. We know Brett Hundley is going to move the ball downfield, but turnovers can be a great equalizer.
If Stanford, for example, does force three or four turnovers against the Bruins, how do we go back and look at this season and the legacy of this defense? What would have happened if they were able to get more takeaways earlier in the year?
Has the Offensive Line Turned a Corner?
Stanford's highly touted offensive line, featuring five juniors from the program's heralded 2012 recruiting class, has been the subject of a lot of criticism this season, especially with the Stanford's running-game struggles. The Tunnel Workers' Union looked very Stanford-like against Cal last week, holding strong in pass protection and pushing the Bears' front line at will to open running lanes for Remound Wright and company.
However, it's hard to say just how much of that dominant performance was due to Stanford's O-line turning a corner and how much of it was Cal's defense being virtually nonexistent. UCLA's front line actually gives up 6 more yards per game than the Bears. If Stanford's offensive line is for real, look for them to follow up their strong performance in the Big Game with another good showing. If Stanford is going to pull off the top-ten upset and pick up that elusive win over a ranked opponent, they will absolutely need to dominate up front.