Any time Stanford football comes up, thoughts immediately turn to quarterback Andrew Luck and the Cardinal offense, but the other side of the ball should is cause for just as much concern.
Luck is almost a certainty to go as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft next spring and the balanced offense he directs is a major reason why Stanford is ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press poll, but the Cardinal defensive numbers are off the chart.
Stanford leads the nation in rushing defense, giving up a paltry 36 yards per game on the ground. True, the Cardinal has played some opponents with pretty weak running games (Duke is 96th in the nation in rushing offense and Arizona is 119th), but 36 yards?
The Cardinal defense has also given up only two touchdowns in three games this season and only nine in nine games dating to last season. It's no wonder Stanford has the nation's longest current win streak at 11 consecutive games.
"They’re on a great run," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "They’ve lost one game since the last time we saw them and the last time we saw them, they waxed us. So we’ve got a huge challenge ahead of us."
Stanford has a new head coach in David Shaw, a new offensive coordinator in Pep Hamilton and a new defensive coordinator in Derek Mason, but all three were on the staff last season under Jim Harbaugh, so the schemes have not changed much and that could be bad news for UCLA.
Stanford defeated the Bruins, 35-0, at the Rose Bowl last season--one of three shutouts the Cardinal posted in 2010. Neuheisel called his team's performance "an offensive disaster" after passing for only 81 yards and committing three turnovers.
Helping matters slightly will be the absence of linebacker Shayne Skov, the team's leading tackler this season and last season, who is out for the season because of a knee injury, but that doesn't leave the Cardinal empty handed. They still have linebacker Chase Thomas and defensive end Ben Gardner pacing a unit that is No. 2 in the nation with 4.33 sacks per game and leads the nation with a mind-boggling 10.3 tackles for a loss per game.
If there is a chink in the armor, it's that the Cardinal has given up 265.67 yards passing per game. But in order to take advantage, the Bruins will have to go a bit deeper into their playbook than they did last week in attempting only 12 passes.
Neuheisel hinted that might be a possibility when he acknowledged that the way to beat Stanford would be to "score a lot of points."
That's mostly because of Luck, who passed up a sure-fire first-round NFL selection when he decided to return for his senior season. He's a quarterback who has the whole package: A strong arm, good mobility and a mind second to none in the college quarterbacking ranks.
He's passed for 786 yards and eight touchdowns with only one interception in three games so far, following a junior season in which he passed for 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns, was named Pac-10 offensive player of the year and was the Heisman Trophy runner up.
"If you go into the hall of fame and you look at the quarterbacks and you say he had this attribute and he had this attribute, you can say Andrew Luck has all of those attributes," Neuheisel said.
His top target is Chris Owusu, a speedster who is also one of the top kick returners in the nation. Stanford's tight end trio of Zack Ertz, Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo also pose a significant threat with a combined 19 catches for 365 yards.
The Cardinal also features a solid offensive line led by veterans David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin. Stanford has given up only two sacks so far and the line also paves the way for a power running attack led by Stepfan Taylor, who has 289 yards in 54 carries--including 154 yards against Arizona on Sept. 17.