In many cases, one of the nice things about young players is their lack of a sense of history. Freshmen don’t need to think about past results or the traditional balance of power. They're at programs to make their own mark. To that end, UCLA's youngsters haven't wasted any time; the No. 9 Bruins are 5-0 entering Saturday's showdown with No. 13 Stanford.
This is a new-look UCLA team, and not only because the Bruins are ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2005. Seventeen different freshmen have seen game action in the first half of the season, a sink-or-swim approach that has led to its share of mistakes, but mostly positive results.
The cornerstone of the freshman class is linebacker Myles Jack, who seems to be improving by the day. Jack reeled in the game-sealing interception in a win over Utah on Oct. 3 and recorded a team-high 12 tackles in a win over Cal last Saturday.
“He’s a freak,” UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr said of Jack. “He’s very athletic and very gifted. He’s also very hardworking and very smart. He has the right mix to be successful. He’s just fun to play with, and he’s an awesome person. He’s so good, I don’t think he’ll be [in college] very long.”
Barr and Jack anchor a defense that limits opponents to 18.2 points a game, 19th nationally. And while Jack is turning heads for his tremendous ceiling, Barr’s consistency has gained him national acclaim. Named an AP second-team All-America in 2012, Barr is now seen as one of the premier defenders in the nation (he was recently named to SI.com’s Midseason All-America Team).
Two years removed from making the switch from running back to linebacker, he's one of the Bruins' veteran leaders.
“It’s fun,” Barr said. “Young, new guys bring a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of energy. They don’t understand fully about the college game and whatnot, but it allows them to play freely. With that comes the growing pains. There are going to be mistakes here and there, but that happens with the older guys, too. I think collectively we have a good mix, it’s definitely fun, and it’s a good environment in the locker room. I don’t feel old until people remind me I’m a senior.”
Over the next two weeks, UCLA has an opportunity to disrupt the Pac-12 equilibrium. With back-to-back road games at Stanford and Oregon, a successful two-game stretch could completely shake up the conference. But winning one -- or both -- won’t be easy.
Stanford is coming off a 27-21 road loss to Utah, and the Cardinal defense, which has suffered some injuries recently, will have its hands full against Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley. Hundley has passed for 1,469 yards, rushed for 260 yards and accounted for 15 total touchdowns this season, and he's coming off a performance in which he torched Cal for 410 passing yards.
The Cardinal know there is no room for error if they want to make a fourth straight BCS bowl. They know they'll need a stronger effort on both sides of the ball than they turned in at Utah.
Otherwise, a young Bruins team that is playing beyond its years could pounce on the opportunity to shake up the Pac-12.
West Coast, best coast
The Pac-12 may still be behind the SEC in college football's pecking order, but the gap is closing fast. The Pac-12's top three of Oregon, Stanford and UCLA matches up nicely with Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M, and the depth in the middle of the league (Washington, USC, Arizona State, Oregon State and even Utah) makes for solid competition from top to bottom.
There’s conference-wide innovation on offense, and it’s hard for defensive coordinators to scheme when a team might face a pro-style attack one week and a spread offense the next.
“You’re trying to brand yourself as much as you can,” Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason said the week of the Cardinal's Sept. 21 game against Arizona State. “Everybody's trying to find their own niche and brand what they do. When you look at coach [Mike] Leach, he’s got his brand of ball. You look at Oregon, they’ve got their brand of ball. You look at what coach [Todd] Graham’s doing at Arizona State, which is a combination of downhill physical run game and what they’re doing with the sprint passing attack. The Pac-12 has a lot of great minds -- offensive and defensive -- and what you’re seeing is guys creating their own brand for their football teams. They’re trying to give their teams an identity.”
UCLA faced Sonny Dykes' Bear Raid offense last week against Cal, and the Bruins now have to turn their attention to Stanford’s power-run game. A week later, they'll travel to Eugene to take on the Ducks’ Final Fantasy summon spell of an offense.
“I think we don’t mind being an underdog and going unnoticed,” Barr said. “That’s never a problem. I think sometimes it helps you in that regard. It is nice to get that national recognition, but the only way you’re going to get that respect is if you win games like this.”
Montgomery back deep to return
Blink, and you might miss Ty Montgomery racing past you. The Stanford wide receiver and return specialist has taken kickoffs back for touchdowns in two consecutive weeks, compiling 364 return yards during that stretch.
“He came into his junior year on a mission,” Stanford coach David Shaw said during the Pac-12 teleconference this week. “One of the pieces of advice I always give him is, ‘I just want you to be Ty.’ He’s relaxed. He’s confident. He knows he can make plays, and we’re putting him in positions to do that.”
The junior is also making a major impact at receiver: He has already set career highs in receptions (31), yards (514) and touchdowns (five) in 2013.
• UCLA RB Paul Perkins: The Bruins needed a running back to step up this season following Johnathan Franklin’s graduation, and for the most part, Jordon James (463 rushing yards, five touchdowns) has filled in admirably. But James' ankle injury suffered during the Utah game leaves UCLA looking for another answer.
Perkins had 92 yards in relief of James against the Utes, but the freshman was largely ineffective against Cal. Damien Thigpen is back from an injury of his own, and with James doubtful against Stanford, one or both will need to establish some sort of rushing presence to keep Stanford defenders from zeroing in on Hundley.
• Stanford DE Luke Kaumatule: With depth along the defensive line stretched thin due to injury, the Cardinal moved Kaumatule from tight end to defensive end this week to fill the void. Shaw even went so far as to call the sophomore from Hawaii a “human spark.”
Kaumatule's ability to contribute on defense will be something to watch for, especially against a quarterback like Hundley who can make the most of broken plays.
• Chris Foster, Los Angeles Times: “The Bruins may or may not be ready for the big stage this season. They have an opportunity the next two weeks, playing Stanford and Oregon. Next season, though, they could become a national player. Hundley would have to forgo the NFL draft and there will be some seniors to replace, like Barr. But a large core of the talent will be back. Getting those freshmen time now will make them savvy sophomores, particularly on the offensive line.”
• David Lombardi, The Bootleg: “With Oregon State and Oregon looming on the schedule, the Cardinal desperately need a win to right the ship this weekend. Otherwise, their three-year BCS bowl streak will almost certainly be over. For that reason, I expect David Shaw's troops to come out of the gate executing with precision Saturday. It doesn't happen often, but the Cardinal were not prepared to beat Utah this past weekend. The Utes surprised them with an effective perimeter passing game, and it took Stanford three quarters to make the appropriate adjustments. They did make a furious rally late, but highly questionable play-calling ultimately derailed that effort.”
The extra point
This is UCLA’s chance to prove the Pac-12 was never just a two-horse race. Unfortunately, the game couldn't come at a worse time. Stanford is angry and frustrated after last week's loss, and given the amount of emphasis it places on execution, the Cardinal will likely be coming off a rededicated week of practice. It's a make-or-break matchup for Stanford, and although the Bruins can put points on the board, Shaw’s team should be able to control the game enough at home to find a way to win and stay alive in Pac-12 title hunt.