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October 18, 2013

Ask the Expert: UCLA

Stanford has not dropped consecutive games since the 2009 season, but the Cardinal will face a difficult test as they try to avoid that fate this weekend.

Led by top pro prospect Brett Hundley, who's ranked in the top 10 nationally in average total offense, No. 9 UCLA is undefeated this season and will bring an improving defense and explosive offense to The Farm.

Cardinal Sports Report caught up with Edward Lewis, publisher of Bruins Sports Report, to get the lowdown on UCLA in advance of Saturday's matchup.

Cardinal Sports Report: What's the latest with running back Jordon James? If he's unable to play, who do you expect to get the bulk of the carries on Saturday?

Edward Lewis: We spotted him on campus Monday still wearing a protective boot on his ankle, and on Tuesday, head coach Jim Mora said he was still in that boot and is now "doubtful" for the big game.

While James isn't quite Johnathan Franklin, UCLA clearly missed him this past weekend against Cal, rushing for just 2.3 yards per carry - easily the worst this year. But Paul Perkins has talent, and can be an adequate replacement if the young O-line would block better for him. I'd expect him to get the start this Saturday.

CSR: UCLA's secondary is obviously young but the DB's have shown an ability to make plays -- intercepting six passes against Utah stands out. How has the Bruins' secondary progressed this year, and in what areas are they playing well/still susceptible to the big play?

EL: It's shocking how well the secondary has played, honestly. They have a converted corner starting at safety, a converted safety playing the nickel corner, and three second-year players starting at the other three spots. We all figured they would be the biggest liability on the team given their inexperience, but clearly that hasn't been the case.

Their strength is man coverage. Fabian Moreau and Ishmael Adams are the two stickiest players on the team, and they haven't given up much to receivers so far this year.

As for their weakness, it has to be inexperience. Which means complicated route combos, double moves, pump fakes and other tricky plays could be key to exposing this defensive backfield.

CSR: UCLA starts two true freshmen on the right side of its offensive line and moved its right tackle to left tackle to compensate for the loss of Torian White. How has the Bruins' youthful line held up so far, and how much concern is there about those younger players contending with Stanford's veteran front-seven?

EL: It was just about a disaster in the second half against Utah, and against Cal, while better, it was still messy. Teams have now discovered that blitzing this front five - or at least feigning the blitz - can not only mess with the protection schemes, but also Brett Hundley's mental psyche.

Because of the youth, they've let free rushers in often on both run plays and pass plays, and Hundley has started to feel a bit of pressure even when it's not there. Now, all five players up front are talented (the two true freshmen were four-stars), but the inexperience is really hurting UCLA right now.

CSR: Statistically, UCLA's run defense has been rather stout; the Bruins are allowing only 3.4 yards per carry this season. What have you seen from UCLA's run defense, and how do you think the Bruins' front will match up against Stanford's large and physical offensive line?

EL: UCLA's front seven could be the best front seven in the nation. Five-star DE Eddie Vanderdoes and senior DE Cassius Marsh have to be two of the top 10 defensive linemen in the conference, and the four starting linebackers on this team might just be the four best in the Pac-12 as well.

Those guys, plus others like five-star DL Ellis McCarthy and senior NG Seali'I Epenesa, are the No. 1 reason why they've been so good against the run, and also against the pass, because the front seven has been able to get to the passer as well.

CSR: What does UCLA need to do to earn the road victory?

EL: Stopping the run will be key, obviously. It's no secret Stanford wants to ground-and-pound everyone it plays, so putting the game in Kevin Hogan's hands has to be priority No. 1 for UCLA.

Offensively, though, is where UCLA really needs to clean its game up. That offensive line just has to be better than it's been these last two weeks. If it's not, Stanford is going to blow up run plays as well as get pressure on Hundley. But if the line plays well, it could be a relatively pleasant afternoon for the Bruins.

CSR: What's your prediction for Saturday and why?

EL: I've wrestled with this for nearly a week now, and I'm still not even 75 percent confident in this prediction, mostly because I'm not sure how UCLA's offensive line will hold up against Stanford's front seven.

But the Bruins are out for revenge, they're playing hot, they know how to win on the road, and Stanford's weaknesses were exposed a bit last weekend. I say UCLA wins 27-23, although I could easily see that score being flipped in favor of Stanford.


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