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Previewing UCLA and Stanford: Q&A with Bruins Nation

Rule of Tree asked some UCLA writers questions about their team before the game this Saturday.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford faces UCLA this Saturday in Stanford's second conference game of the season. Number 7/6 Stanford (2-0, 1-0) will travel to Los Angeles to take on UCLA (2-1, 0-0) at the Rose Bowl. UCLA was picked to win the Pac-12 South in this year's preseason media poll (with USC a close second), and it began the season ranked #16. But UCLA dropped a tough game on the road in overtime against Texas A&M (which was unranked at the time, but is now ranked #10/#13). Over the past two weeks, UCLA bounced back with wins against UNLV and BYU. Those wins haven't been sufficient to return UCLA to the top 25, though UCLA received votes in both the AP and Coaches' polls.

The recent history of this rivalry has been all Stanford. Stanford has won its past eight games in a row against the Bruins, including the 2012 Pac-12 championship game. UCLA returns talented quarterback Josh Rosen, but it lost its star running back Paul Perkins to the draft after last season. The UCLA defense has suffered some injuries, but it looked awfully good against BYU last week when it returned to full strength. We asked some of the very skilled writers over at Bruins Nation to tell us more about their team and to analyze the matchup with Stanford. Our answers to their questions should be up soon.

Rule of Tree: We know Josh Rosen has gobs of talent, and he's shown it at times during his young career (including some great plays against Stanford last year). But his numbers so far this year aren't spectacular. What's going on, and what should we expect to see from him on Saturday?

Robert Bastron: There’s a lot going on, actually. For one, he’s struggled a bit to adapt to the new offensive scheme, sometimes not seeing open receivers, other times being a bit inaccurate. He’s also not getting much help from his receivers, who have dropped a startling amount of catchable balls, or the offensive line in pass protection. But Rosen, at least numbers-wise, has improved a bit each week. I expect to continue to see a mixed bag from Rosen, a few misses, a few misreads, mixed in with solid play and the occasional glimpse of that arm that NFL scouts love.

AnteatersandBruins: I think it’s a combination of things. He stares down receivers, which can make it easy for the defense to cover. He also can’t see guys that are open, and instead goes for the bomb downfield. The receivers aren’t grabbing passes either, so even if he throws accurately, the connection gets lost.

Joe Piechowski: Since Spring, I’ve been concerned with the state of the offensive line. To me, the middle of the line looked like a concern then and it remains one now. Too often, I think Rosen is feeling pressure from the defense because the line isn’t getting the job done and, that’s resulting in Josh trying to create things where nothing exists which hasn’t worked out too well.

ROT: Tell us about the UCLA running game. Soso Jamabo stepped in ably to replace Paul Perkins, but he didn't play in last week's game against BYU. Who will we see this week, and do you expect UCLA to be successful running the ball against the Stanford defense? Finally, it seems like UCLA's run/pass distribution has been pretty even so far (in terms of attempts per game). Is that accurate, and should we anticipate continuation of that trend?

Robert Bastron: Mora has always been ultra secretive about injuries and availability, and this season he’s started a new trend of not playing guys in the backfield. Nate Starks did not play the first two weeks, Soso was not dressed last week, along with fullback Ainuu Taua. Who will it be this week!? They’ve also been rotating too many guys, if you ask me, in the backfield between Jamabo, Bolu Olorunfunmi, Starks, Brandon Stephens, and Jalen Starks, all getting significant reps. I don’t see UCLA being successful in the run game against Stanford unless they run mostly off-tackle and mix it up a bit. The power running game that Kennedy Polamalu hoped to establish hasn’t materialized. The run/pass distribution has been pretty even, and I expect that to continue.

AnteatersandBruins: The running game has been our strong point the last few years, and I think we’re definitely feeling the loss of Paul Perkins. There doesn’t seem to be the "go-to" guy, and no one knows why certain players have been suspended and why they’ve been spread over so many games. I expect to see the same balanced offense, but as I wrote in my defensive preview, I think your experienced front seven is going to give us trouble.

Joe Piechowski: Again, it comes down to the offensive line. The first two weeks, they did a better job opening holes for Jamabo than they did last week for Starks against BYU. What will happen this week against the Cardinal? Well, that may end up deciding the game.

ROT: How is the UCLA defense looking this year? It was impressive in shutting down BYU last week but showed some vulnerability (especially to the run) against Texas A&M and UNLV. How do you think UCLA will attempt to contain the Stanford offense, and how will UCLA's defense perform against a Stanford team that loves to run the ball?

Robert Bastron: The UCLA defense could actually be great if everyone is healthy. The key difference in the BYU game from the A&M and UNLV games was the availability of both Eddie Vanderdoes and Takkarist McKinley on the defensive line. I’m pretty confident in the ability to stop the run if everyone is healthy, against anybody in the conference. If McKinley and Vanderdoes aren’t playing? It’s been night and day. Of course, the coaches are being coy on if they are going to do anything interesting or special to handle Christian McCaffrey.

AnteatersandBruins: I echo what Robert said. When all personnel are on the field, great things happen. I’m not too worried about McCaffrey as long as the defense shows up and stays healthy.

Joe Piechowski: Last week was the first time all the defensive front seven starters have played together since the first game of last season. That’s a big reason that they only allowed 23 yards rushing to BYU. Takkarist McKinley did tweak his groin late in the game and he may be a game time decision, but, if he’s healthy, I fully expect the front seven to hold McCaffrey in check.

ROT: Stanford fans are used to seeing their team rise or fall based on who wins or loses battles in the trenches. How have UCLA's offensive and defensive lines looked this year, and how do you think they'll match up against Stanford's?

Robert Bastron: The defensive line when healthy looks to be awesome and can play against anyone in the conference, I believe. The offensive line, not so much. The two tackles, Kolton Miller and Conor McDermott are big time players. The interior of the offensive line has been pretty weak, which is a large reason why Polamalu hasn’t been able to establish the between-the-tackles run game. I think the D-line (if healthy!) can win in the trenches against Stanford’s O-line. The UCLA offensive line I think will struggle to run, and protect against the Cardinal defensive front.

AnteatersandBruins: I’m very optimistic about the defense. They look great when everyone is present and I think they can contain the run game. Unfortunately, our O-line has not looked spectacular up front. I expected more from them this year. At times, they’ve had Rosen running for his life. I want them to step it up this week. In the trench, I think Stanford’s front seven is going to make it tought to run up the middle.

Joe Piechowski: Well, if you’ve read my previous answers, then you already know my thoughts on this.

ROT: Tell us about one UCLA player on offense and one player on defense who fly under the radar but who might impact the game on Saturday night.

Robert Bastron: Wide receiver Darren Andrews has emerged as a speedy and reliable receiver. He leads the team with 10 receptions, and scored a touchdown on a 33rd yard pass from Rosen last week, ground mostly gained by Andrews’ feet. Linebacker Jayon Brown, well, he’s starting to not fly so much under the radar anymore. Last week he spied Taysom Hill, and had nine tackles, one sack, and forced a fumble.

AnteatersandBruins: On offense, I give props to our Freshman kicker, J.J. Molson. Yes, he missed a field goal last week, but that’s one of only two all season (and I blame his first miss on bad clock management). He’s pretty solid and not easily rattled. On defense, I’d definitely agree on Jayon Brown. I was watching the game with friends/family last week and we lost count on how many times his name was mentioned. He had his coming out party and I expect big things from him.

Joe Piechowski: On offense, I have to go with Ishmael Adams. He’s a spark plug who transitioned from defense to offense this season and has made a big impact so far. Defensively, the return of Eddie Vanderdoes has made a huge difference in stopping the run.

ROT: How does the fan base feel about Jim Mora at this point? He seems to have done a pretty good job resurrecting the UCLA football program, but I've sensed some frustration that he hasn't been able to win a conference championship or take his team to a BCS/NY6 bowl. So how do you feel about him, and what would be a successful season for UCLA in 2016?

Robert Bastron: You said it. Bruin fans are happy that the program is now out of total mediocrity and winning 9-10 games, but then quickly have become frustrated that the Bruins can’t quite get over the hump (btw, you are said "hump") and play like an elite team, especially with the talent he has recruited and developed into NFL players. A successful season would be winning the Pac-12 South, something Mora was able to do in his first season, but not since. I think this is a big year for Mora. Josh Rosen will be around for this season and the next one. There’s a feeling that if he can’t win a conference championship with Rosen, will he ever be able to?

AnteatersandBruins: There’s the ongoing Stanford saga--we can’t seem to beat you guys (props to your team, by the way)! It’s great to see the team come up from such horrible seasons in the past, but that only goes so far. We want a Pac 12 South Championship and a Rose Bowl berth. Mora has done a great job taking care of the players and really takes an interest in the kids. I sense that he feels like he is "Team Dad" and actually takes that job pretty seriously. A successful season is 9-10 wins, beating USC, and getting to the conference championship.

Joe Piechowski: Ask me after Saturday. LOL.

ROT: How do you envision this game playing out? Who do you think wins in the Rose Bowl this week, and (if you're feeling bold) what's the final score?

Robert Bastron: UCLA has lost more than a few straight at the hands of the Cardinal (I try not to count that high), and the last few have been total beatdowns. I don’t expect this to be a beatdown, but I haven’t seen enough yet to predict a Bruin win. Perhaps we steadily improve with the new offense, Rosen continues to get more comfortable, and we stay healthy on defense and can take you down in Santa Clara. We’ll see. But I’m not seeing it happening this week. I envision a game that is low scoring, slow, and maybe even a bit ugly for primetime: Stanford 21 - UCLA 17.

AnteatersandBruins: I want a good game. I’ll even take a nail biter. If this game was in another week or two, we might beat you guys. But right now, I don’t see a win coming our way (but I hope I’m wrong!). Like Robert, I don’t see a massacre like we’ve had in the past. I’m going Stanford-28, UCLA-21.

Joe Piechowski: JJ Molson nails a long field goal to win this one late for UCLA, 24-21.