The Bruins are going to be taking on a familiar foe Saturday afternoon.
Stanford (2-1) will play host to No. 24 UCLA football (2-1) in the Bruins' first conference game of the 2021 season. More so than any other opponent on the Bruins' schedule this season, the Cardinal are a known commodity, and a known commodity that has given them plenty of trouble through the years.
David Shaw is back for his 11th season at Stanford, but his teams haven't reached their previous peaks in recent seasons. After going 82-26 from 2011 to 2018, Shaw is 10-11 since.
Still, Shaw brings back the same staff he's had in the past, with offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard returning for his 16th consecutive year in the program and fourth at his position. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson also started at his job in 2018 and has been with the Cardinal in some capacity since 2007.
So with the past few seasons and the first three games of 2021 in mind, here's a quick rundown of what Stanford might look like come Saturday.
Stanford Offense vs. UCLA Defense
Stanford Passing Yards/Game: 215.3 yards
Stanford Rushing Yards/Game: 128.0 yards
UCLA Passing Yards Allowed/Game: 342.7 yards
UCLA Rushing Yards Allowed/Game: 63.0 yards
The Cardinal are running the same offense they were when Jack West was in at quarterback, only better.
Shaw is still calling the plays for Stanford on that side of the ball, with Pritchard helping as well. The Cardinal have run a lot of spread offense this year due to injuries and the types of games they've been a part of, but that's familiar to UCLA since they've been in multiple shootouts with Stanford over the past few seasons anyways.
The Cardinal are once again passing more than they're running, which is right on track with what Shaw has been calling over the past few years. Swapping out West for Tanner McKee late in the Kansas State game has made for a more successful West Coast offense, as he has a much better arm and touch that can put his receivers in better positions to grab jump balls on the outside.
McKee is also pretty light on his feet for a 6-foot-5 quarterback. He won't be many designed runs outside the 5-yard line and he won't be scrambling for 30 yards, but he can buy himself time and move well overall.
His favorite target through three games has been receiver Brycen Tremayne, who has one touchdown in every contest this season. Also coming in at 6-foot-5, Tremayne is a guy who can fight through contact and sniff out the ball at his highest point with relative ease – see his touchdown catch against Kansas State in garbage time:
Tremayne made a similar physical grab in the end zone two weeks later against Vanderbilt.
Tremayne doesn't just rely on bully ball though. He has good awareness, footwork and speed for a guy his size, and that makes him a threat not only on back corner fades, but also in the slot or back of the end zone.
While Tremayne is the No. 1 red zone target, he isn't the only big wideout UCLA will have to contend with. 6-foot-5 John Humphreys and 6-foot-3 Elijah Higgins will also be lining up wide for the Cardinal, meaning there's more than one tall receiver who could end up adding their name next to JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Simi Fehoko and others who have tormented the Bruins in the past.
Now it's up to cornerbacks Cam Johnson, Obi Eboh, Mo Osling and Devin Kirkwood to shut those guys down. Based on how badly Kayshon Boutte tore them up Week 1 and both Jalen Cropper and Josh Kelly in Week 3, they better have taken some big steps forward if UCLA has any shot at slowing them down.
Stanford's 128 rushing yards per game shows how mediocre they've been on the ground so far this year, and their 39 yards and 1.9 yards per carry Week 1 against Kansas State shows just how low their floor is. Three of the Cardinal's six rushing touchdowns have come from on designed quarterback keepers, and another is from a player with just three total carries.
Nathaniel Peat has been the standout among the otherwise lackluster backfield group in 2021, breaking off big play after big play to salvaged some of his team's stats in that phase of the game.
Peat has 51 more rushing yards than his next closest teammate, and that's on half as many carries as the leading ball-carrier. Racking up 169 yards on 14 carries put Peat at 12.1 yards per attempt, which would give him the top spot in the Pac-12 if he had enough touches to qualify.
Even taking out that 87-yard score against USC, Peat still averages 6.3 yards per carry. He isn't a workhorse, and he doesn't profile as an every-down guy, but the second he gets the ball in his hands, Peat is a threat to make big plays.
Once Peat reaches the second level, he's almost always gone. Stacking the box when he's in the game seems to not end well for Stanford's opponents, and the Bruins might need to play two deep safeties to help neutralize his top-end burst. That would theoretically help UCLA in pass defense too, so it will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro and assistant head coach Brian Norwood will position their linebackers and defensive backs while simultaneously disguising blitzes and trying not to leave the back end too empty.
Austin Jones is the more traditional, between the tackles back, but he is out Saturday. So are Casey Filkins and EJ Smith, meaning Peat may have to take on more of that every-down role against UCLA. That could minimize his effectiveness, as the Bruin defense will be able to settle into some more consistent looks trying to cap him without worrying about a change of pace guy mixing them up.
Add in the fact that UCLA is allowing its opponents to get just 63 rushing yards per game, and it seems like Stanford is going to go heavy on the pass. Even though McKee has yet to attempt more than 30 passes in a game this season, he is almost locked in to do so against a porous Bruin secondary.
Peat will still fill the home run hitter role though, and his ability to break off big plays will become even more reliant on his offensive line.
Left tackle Walter Rouse and left guard Barrett Miller are third-year starters with smarts and size. The right side and center position bring far less experience to the table – center Drake Nugent, who is kind of undersized, and right tackle Miles Hinton, who is far from undersized, are both first-year starters. Right guard Branson Bragg was a freshman All-American in 2020, so what he lacks in experience, he makes up for with ability.
It's a talented unit, but probably no more so than LSU's and look what UCLA did to them. If edge rusher Mitchell Agude is healthy and his usual explosive self, McKee should expect to take a mild beating, at the very least. That's just how this defense works, and Stanford's success will be based off their big play ability and how much physicality they can take before breaking.
LSU broke, Fresno State didn't. Teams that don't break can tire out the Bruins' defense, and the Cardinal certainly have the potential to do that Saturday.
Stanford Defense vs. UCLA Offense
UCLA Passing Yards/Game: 228.7 yards
UCLA Rushing Yards/Game: 194.7 yards
Stanford Passing Yards Allowed/Game: 172.7 yards
Stanford Rushing Yards Allowed/Game: 210.7 yards
The Cardinal's weak point is the Bruins' strong one, so while Stanford may thrive by airing it out, UCLA will look to run early and often.
In a game they led by two possessions for the entire second half, Stanford still gave up 247 rushing yards to Vanderbilt. The Commodores had two backs pick up over 75 yards, which plays right into the Bruins’ duo of Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown.
Their secondary had much more success against Vanderbilt, allowing just one passing play of over 20 yards. Air raid USC only passed for 223 yards and preseason All-Pac-12 First Team quarterback Kedon Slovis only posted a 112.0 passer rating.
Cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly has two interceptions, one of which he brought back for a touchdown against the Trojans.
While he does post good enough ball skills to take advantage of being in the right place at the right time, he’s a very good coverage corner as well. He leads the Cardinal with four pass breakups and does not allow for many yards after the catch, also leading his team with 17 tackles.
Stanford’s pass rush does not do its secondary any favors though, recording just 4.0 sacks through three contests.
Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson took full advantage of this, buying time without ever leaving the pocket against the Cardinal’s four-man rush. UCLA’s offense and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson thrive more on schemes and game plans getting guys open rather than improvising, but his talent and the quickness of guys like Kyle Philips, Kazmeir Allen and Kam Brown will give them several opportunities to bide their time and find soft spots in Stanford’s zone.
As has been the case in past games, the Bruins will lean on the play action to break off big plays, and the Cardinal’s defense will be very susceptible to that.
While Stanford will rely on its pass game to put up a lot of points, UCLA will be able to run up the score in a multitude of ways.