Stanford hasn’t won a football game at the Rose Bowl since most of its current players were overachieving elementary school students.
If the Cardinal can end that skid on Saturday night, they’ll greatly increase their chances of returning to the venerated old stadium in January.
The 25th-ranked Cardinal will get their first test in a season of uncommonly high expectations when they visit UCLA for the first game of the Pac-10 schedule. After barging back into the Top 25 with a 52-17 rout of Sacramento State in its season opener, Stanford must take a big step forward against the improving Bruins to take an early lead in the conference race.
“We’ve always felt this is the week, out of all the weeks in a season, when you have a chance to make the most progress in a one-week period,” Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. “This game has conference championship implications, and it’s Week 2.”
But Stanford hasn’t won in Pasadena since 1996, losing six straight to the Bruins and falling to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2000.
Those numbers don’t reflect the current state of either program, however.
Stanford (1-0) has been rebuilt by Harbaugh into a prime contender for the Pac-10 title, while UCLA (0-1) simply is hoping to emerge from a tremendously difficult September schedule with enough momentum to stay in the race.
After a season-opening loss to Kansas State, UCLA still must face high-octane Houston and powerhouse Texas before resuming its conference slate. Stanford is the most meaningful opponent of the month, and UCLA is eager to get a boost from a home crowd that’s cautiously optimistic about coach Rick Neuheisel’s third season.
“We’ve been thinking about it since January, that this month is going to be tough,” said Kevin Prince, the Bruins’ sophomore quarterback. “It would be a really big boost to our season to come out of this one with a win, because conference games matter the most of all.”
The Cardinal gave precious little useful game tape to the Bruins during their rout of Sacramento State. Stanford used only a fraction of its offense to rack up the third-highest point total in school history, and the defense mostly used a four-man front despite making a very public switch to a 3-4 scheme during the offseason.
While Stanford still has plenty of secrets, the Bruins tried just about every trick in their book against Kansas State. It didn’t quite work: UCLA’s defense gave up 313 yards rushing, and the offense fell just short of an equalizing score in the fourth quarter.
“We never went into the game thinking we had the luxury of not (using everything),” Neuheisel said. “That was never part of the equation. Everybody has different philosophies of how you go about the schedule. Our game was going to be a dogfight, and we didn’t hold a lot back. A number of teams around the country did not choose to do that, and they had the luxury of holding onto things.”
At least the Bruins likely will have the services of Prince. Neuheisel said Thursday that he’ll start despite being limited all week in practice to rest his sore shoulder and a balky back, which forced him to miss most of training camp.
Prince wasn’t particularly sharp against Kansas State, going 9 for 26, but UCLA’s receivers dropped a dismaying high number of passes. Prince is thought to be well ahead of backup Richard Brehaut in game readiness, and he proved his leadership skills this week by claiming responsibility for several glaring drops, saying he hadn’t delivered the ball perfectly.
UCLA’s first game with its new pistol offensive formation was a mixed success, but at least it provides a studying point for the Stanford defense.
“UCLA has a bunch of single-back formations, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of (4-2-5 defense) again,” said Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas, who made two sacks against Sacramento State. “The pistol offense is confusing. They can go both ways any time they want. It will be challenging to prepare for them.”