Before last week, UCLA was pretty much on top of the college football world. They had just upset LSU, looked dominant in their first two games of the season, and had aspirations of winning the Pac-12 and perhaps even going to the College Football Playoff. Then things came crashing down to Earth as they were upset by Fresno State last week in a last-minute 40-37 loss. They’re at 2-1 on the season, which brings a bit more urgency to the upcoming conference schedule.
To be honest, I wasn’t totally surprised by the Fresno loss, as that game was always somewhat of a trap game. Fresno has been a sneaky good team this year. They took a very good Oregon team right to the wire in week 2, just losing 31-24. It’s easy to underestimate an opponent like that, especially coming off the emotional high dominating an SEC team to get to 2-0.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still disappointing. When you take the lead with less than a minute left and the opposing team needs to drive the field for a touchdown with just one timeout remaining, you should feel pretty good about your chances. That should be even more so the case when the opposing QB is very clearly injured. Alas, UCLA found a way to screw it up, as they played very soft and looked out of sorts on defense all throughout the final drive.
Nonetheless, for a game that didn’t start the way they would like it to, UCLA was able to fight back to put up 37 points and obtain a late lead that probably should have won them the game. While there are no moral victories in this sport, that in and of itself is hopefully an indication that this UCLA team is more mentally tough than what we’ve seen from Kelly’s squads in the past.
At the end of the day, UCLA has no time to feel sorry for themselves. The conference schedule is about to start, and they’ve got an important and challenging game coming up. They’re going to have to find a way to turn things around and be ready to play come Saturday.
To kick off their conference schedule, UCLA will travel to Stanford to play the Cardinal. Stanford certainly has history on their side for this one: They’re 9-1 in their last ten games against UCLA. Like the Bruins, Stanford has started the season 2-1, and they’ve looked awfully impressive in their wins. This will also be the first road game for the Bruins all year, so they’ll have that to contend with as well.
This game will likely be a shootout, as it was for 2 of the last 3 times these teams played. It pretty much will come down to strength against strength. UCLA is great at running the ball, and Stanford’s run defense is poor. Meanwhile, Stanford’s passing game is hot, and UCLA is looking weak in the secondary. Quentin Lake being injured certainly doesn’t help that out much either.
Stanford is coming off a 42-28 road win against USC that ultimately ended up getting USC head coach Clay Helton fired. So UCLA really can’t sleepwalk through this one. They’ll have to get back to their formula: Start fast, and run the football. After an absolutely ridiculous start to the season by Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown, the duo seriously cooled off last week as UCLA could not run the ball in defeat. I’d expect them to do better against Stanford. If they can’t, it’s hard to see UCLA winning this game.
When you’re playing in a shootout, you have to play mistake-free football. UCLA’s last two losses against Stanford came by one score or less. They’ll have to start strong, and they’ll also have to finish–something they utterly failed at last week.
It’s a statement game for both sides, and if both teams play up to their potential, it should be a good game as well.
You never want to overstate the importance of early-season games. Even if UCLA loses this game, they’ll only be 2-2. There are plenty more winnable games on the schedule.
The bigger question, though, is what kind of team these Bruins are. Are they the cream of the crop of the Pac-12, truly ready to separate themselves from the rest of the conference? Or are they just another middling Pac-12 team that remains unable to turn their potential into reality? From that perspective, this game should tell us a lot. An out-of-conference loss to a tough opponent is reasonable. (We saw both Arizona State and Utah lose to BYU this year.) But you have to be able to learn from it, to turn around and get better. That’s what the good teams do.