After receiving lots of attention from college and NFL scouts alike, Brett Hundley and the UCLA offense received a rude awakening from the Stanford defense last Saturday. The Bruins had been carving up some less-than-reputable defenses to start the year, but after being literally strangled by the Stanford defense, it appears that Noel Mazzone's offense is still a few notches behind the class of the conference.
The Cardinal were all over the place last Saturday; whether it was making plays in the trenches, intercepting tough passes, getting pressure on the quarterback with limited rushers, or wrapping up playmakers on the outside, it's hard to think of a better spread-oriented defense out there. Stanford had been pushed around by Chip Kelly's offense and the Oregon Ducks for several years and in response, Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw have done a great job of locking down a tremendously athletic and disciplined defense. Guys like Josh Mauro and Shayne Skov are absolute nightmares for any offensive coordinator that likes to use basic zone plays without extra blockers and as we saw on Saturday, Stanford is basically built to handle offenses like UCLA's.
That assertion was backed up by Stanford's game plan against the Bruins' young offensive line and somewhat unproven skill players. Stanford played relatively conservatively and didn't put out too many exotic blitz packages in the gameplan, they simply played the Bruins with their base defense and often sat back in coverage in passing situations. But as we've learned over the years with more balanced spread offenses, the key to stopping a spread offense is to stop the run and let an abundance of DB's handle the passing downs.
Let's take a look at Stanford's run defense first. Watch how Josh Mauro dominates the Bruin guard Alex Redmond in a one-on-one situation at the point of attack.
Mauro uses basically picture perfect technique to get off of Redmond's block. As soon as the ball is snapped, Mauro immediately engages the block, extends his arms, and gains leverage on the offensive lineman. At one point, Mauro is extended so far from the block that Redmond only has one hand on his man. As soon as the UCLA ballcarrier Damien Thigpen gets to the hole, Mauro throws Redmond to the side and lays a big hit on Thigpen.
UCLA's offense does not like to utilize extra blockers, perhaps that is because they don't have any extra blockers to use, but in any case, the Bruins had no success running the ball man-on-man in their standard four-wide set. To run the ball against teams like Stanford, offenses either have to use some tight ends to compensate for the talented front, or find a way to run the ball on the exterior through sweeps and quick screens.
Here's an example of how that idea went for UCLA:
Stanford's defense immediately read the run and started chugging its way upfield towards the quarterback and running back. As soon as the defense pinched down, Brett Hundley flicked the ball out to his receiver on the quick screen, leaving the receiver Devin Fuller basically in a one-on-one situation versus Stanford's star safety Jordan Richards. Richards, who finished the day with two interceptions, promptly planted Fuller into the ground.
So UCLA couldn't run the ball on the inside because their offensive line was completely overmatched and the Bruins couldn't get the ball to the outside because their receivers couldn't make plays in space against Stanford's top-notch secondary. How about the passing game?
On this play, Stanford sent one of its favorite blitzes, the corner blitz, at Hundley:
Hundley immediately feels the pressure from the corner back and starts moving out of the pocket. Stanford linebacker Ben Gardner takes his turn dominating the UCLA line this time, beating Alex Redmond easily in the middle. Of course, Josh Mauro is in hot pursuit of Hundley as well a few yards downfield should Hundley have decided to turn things upfield.
There are a couple of things to take away from this play. First, when Hundley initially feels the corner blitz, he steps away from the pressure, but does not bail out of the pocket. He only starts seriously escaping when Gardner gets into the backfield. This shows that Hundley made a good initial decision to trust his blockers, but was quickly convinced otherwise by the tremendous talent of Ben Gardner. Second, UCLA's running back Paul Perkins was in good position to pick up the corner blitz. If only his linemen had as much success.
Here is another corner blitz, this time with four down linemen:
After noticing the corner blitz coming, Hundley steps up into the pocket to potentially set up a throw. Paul Perkins ends up picking the corner blitz up after Hundley moved up in the pocket, but the rest of the UCLA offensive line was not having the same luck. Xavier Su'a-Filo loses control of his man forcing Hundley to step behind him while Caleb Benenoch lets his man fight all the way across the line.
Obviously, Hundley was not supposed to have a lot of time in the pocket on a play like this, so it's also important to note that Hundley was unable to find his hot route while he was under pressure. That inability to find the hot route was mostly lent to great coverage by the Stanford defensive backs.
If we take a look at another passing play, you'll really see how Stanford's secondary put UCLA's receivers under wraps:
In this play, Stanford is sitting in a basic zone coverage look, Hundley and his receivers have plenty of time to find a hole in the coverage, but simply couldn't separate from the defense. Eventually, the basic three man rush found its way past the UCLA line to get the sack.
So overall, UCLA was overmatched in the interior running game, exterior running game, and passing game. However, at some points, the Bruins were able to piece things together. When the Bruins could pick up the Stanford rush, things opened up a bit and the Bruins were able to grind away at the interior. When a majority of those drives started to click for the Bruins, almost on cue, UCLA would get a penalty.
On their opening drive the Bruins got some quality runs from Malcolm Jones and Steven Manfro, but promptly earned a false start penalty. On their second drive, a false start on the very first play killed the drive early.
Eventually, the Bruins got into the end zone in the fourth, trimming the Stanford lead to 17-10. The solid UCLA defense immediately forced Stanford off of the field, shifting all of the momentum to UCLA's corner. On UCLA's first drive following the touchdown, a good carry on first down was negated by a false start on second down, killing that drive.
After UCLA got Stanford's offense off the field again, the Bruins started things out with a solid screen pass to Perkins. On second down, yet another false start killed the drive.
By the time UCLA got the ball back again, there was very little time left in the game, forcing the Bruins to pass the ball exclusively. Hundley ended up getting pressured and threw an interception to end the game.
Who knows how much momentum the Bruins could have gained throughout the game without the mental errors? Despite the penalties though, there was simply no escaping the Stanford defense last time out. The Cardinal have the premier defense in the conference and really flexed their muscle against a young, undisciplined Bruin team. Duck fans, start getting worried, this Stanford defense is pretty darn good again.