The challenge that faces the UCLA secondary this week is enormous: The Bruins must stop the best quarterback in the country.
Many before have tried, few have succeeded.
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the Heisman runner up last season and projected first pick in the 2012 NFL draft, is 23-5 in his career as a starter and guided the Cardinal to the No. 9 scoring offense in the nation last season and again to the No. 9 scoring offense this season.
There is no easy way to stop Luck because when he isn't beating you with his arm--he has 6,699 yards passing and 53 touchdowns in 28 career games--he can beat you with his legs. He has rushed for 854 yards in his career, averaging 6.9 yards per carry.
But his most dangerous weapon is his brain. He can decipher a defense in seconds at the line, check out of a play and get the defense on its heels. It adds up to a challenge that will require the best of what UCLA's secondary has to offer.
"Flat out if you look at the film, he is the best quarterback in the country by far," cornerback Aaron Hester said. "We just have to be on our a-game in the secondary to make sure that we make plays."
Last year, UCLA did a pretty good job of containing Luck as a passer. He completed 11 of 24 passes for 151 yards--his lowest passing output of the season. Yet Luck was efficient, completing two of those passes for touchdowns and completing third down passes for 19, 34 and 22 yards.
But he really hurt UCLA by scrambling. He had runs of 16, 11, 13 and 11 yards among his 63 yards rushing in that game.
"He killed us with his feet last year and that’s something you don’t expect," UCLA safety Tony Dye said. "We’re looking to get some of the same looks so hopefully we can keep it down to the same passing numbers but we’ve just got to be wary of his feet."
Going up against the best is a motivating factor for the competitors in UCLA's defensive backfield. Sure, they respect what he has been able to do during his career, but they say facing someone such as Luck makes them want to prove their own mettle.
"It’s a great motivating factor," Hester said. "If I make a play on one of his balls, that means I was on my game that day. He’s going to throw a perfect pass and I have to make a perfect break to make a play on his ball."
For defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, the task is complex. He can try to pressure Luck with blitzes, but then runs the risk of leaving a receiver uncovered or in a mismatch that Luck will surely exploit. He can have his secondary stay back in coverage, but that only gives Luck more time to find an open man.
So what will Tresey do?
"You have to be smart, you have to pick your spots, you have to understand protections and you have to hope that you pick the right fire zone and the right blitz when they are in the right protection," he said. "That’s what you hope. The biggest thing is you have to try to affect him. You have to make him move his feet and make him throw off rhythm."
The task is made even more difficult by the injury issues facing UCLA's secondary. Sheldon Price, the team's top cover corner, will probably not play because of a sprained knee suffered in last week's victory over Oregon State. Safety Dalton Hilliard sprained his shoulder in that same game and hasn't practiced this week and safety Alex Mascarenas has a concussion and may not be cleared by game time. Dye missed lat week's game with stingers, and may or may not be back against the Cardinal.
Hester will start at one corner and Andrew Abbott--normally the nickel back--will start at the other, but inexperienced players such as Tevin McDonald, Stan McKay and Brandon Sermons could be called upon for significant playing time. Jamie Graham could also make his season debut and although Graham played in a similar defensive scheme during his three seasons at Vanderbilt, he still hasn't played in a game in a year. Rust and inexperience against Luck could be too much to overcome, though the Bruins don't see it that way.
"Even though we lose a great corner like Sheldon Price for this game, we feel like the people that are stepping in playing, we feel like we’re going to be able to cover," Hester said. "I don’t feel like we’re at a disadvantage at all...It’s hard to replace a guy like Sheldon but Abbott can cover and Abbott can tackle and he can do what he needs to do to get the victory."
Dye isn't worried, either. He said he expects the young, inexperienced players to make mistakes, but it won't be just because they are going up against Luck.
"I don’t think Luck is going to have our guys with big eyes out there," Dye said. "I just think the fact that they are young and they are playing football now will. "They’re going to make rookie mistakes, but at the same time, they have been playing great in practice and I’ve got complete confidence."
McDonald made his first career start last week in place of Dye and would get the call again if Dye can't go. He said playing a full game wasn't too much for him to handle, though he's obviously never faced the type of quarterback he'll be up against this week.
"I got my feet wet and now I've got to play Andrew Luck," he said. "But the key is we have to just make sure we do our jobs. "We just have to trust our teammates, know that they are going to be where they are supposed to be. We can't focus on him."
Many other have tried that strategy, but, as Luck would have it, he proves too difficult to ignore.