Stanford's visit to UCLA on Saturday features multiple mysteries and intriguing storylines. Will Bruins quarterback Kevin Prince be healthy? What about the health of Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov, receiver Chris Owusu and running back Jeremy Stewart? What defense will the Cardinal run? Who will make the first mark in the Pac-10 schedule?
Stanford senior center Chase Beeler, however, is focused on something that stands out specifically for him and his fellow hogs that is no mystery because it's a measured number published for all to see: Last weekend, the Bruins' rebuilt front seven surrendered 313 yards rushing at Kansas State.
"As an offensive linemen, that's something that excites me," Beeler said. "If myself or any of the other offensive linemen were operating things, I don't know if we would ever pass the football. We'd always be running."
While the conventional wisdom is that Stanford's offense, post-Toby Gerhart, will lean in talented sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, coach Jim Harbaugh owns Big Ten sensibilities and has worked hard to cultivate an edgy physicality within his team. As in: Yeah, it's Stanford, one of the nation's elite universities, but on the football field it plays like bikers whose manhood has been questioned.
So count on Stanford challenging the Bruins' questionable run defense with its post-Gerhart backfield-by-committee, which rushed for 213 yards and scored three TDs in the opener against Sacramento State.
"We know we are going to play a team that is going to be running the ball," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "And we've got to find a way to stop that run. If they can run the ball down our throats, as they seemed to attempt in almost every game they play, then it's going to be a long evening."
Neuheisel likely is just as concerned about his offense as his run defense. For one, Prince, after missing all of fall camp with a back injury, is now nursing a shoulder injury, which has limited him in practice this week. Prince certainly looked rusty while completing just 9 of 26 passes for 120 yards with two interceptions at Kansas State, but he also was victimized by numerous drops.
Neuheisel didn't give Prince a bad grade for the opener, considering the circumstances.
"He managed the game really well," Neuheisel said. "I thought he ran the ball really well. While he was a little rusty with his accuracy, from the decision-making standpoint, I thought he was pretty sharp there. The ball just wasn't where it needed to be all the time. Truthfully, I had to expect much of that because he missed much of training camp. But there should be a quantum leap from Week 1 to Week 2. If he gets sharp, we are going to be a much better offense."
But not practicing won't help him get sharp. If Prince can't go -- or can't go all the way -- his backup is Richard Brehaut.
Stanford is not without issues. Neither Owusu nor Skov, two of the Cardinal's stars, played in the opener. Harbaugh's new policy is to not talk about injuries, so the nature and severity of the injuries are a bit of a mystery, though probably not to UCLA coaches, who have ways of finding such things out. Harbaugh has intimated he thinks both will play. Stewart appeared to hurt his ankle in the opener and should be viewed as decidedly questionable.
Another mystery: After adopting a new 3-4 scheme during spring practices with new coordinator Vic Fangio, the Cardinal played a 4-2-5 against Sacramento State. Fangio is a longtime 3-4 guy, and Neuheisel said he expects a 3-4. Harbaugh said his defense ran a 4-2-5 because Sacramento State runs a one-back spread. And that's mostly what the Bruins' new "pistol" offense is.
So what are the Bruins to do?
"I don't know if they were doing that to fool us or what, but we'll prepare for both," Prince said. "If they play that 4-2-5, we know what we want to do against it because we learned from what we did against Kansas State [which ran a 4-2-5 last weekend]. If they play a 3-4, we've played teams like that before. We know what to do."
As for the Bruins' defense, it's got a lot to prove against a Stanford unit that, at least on paper, should be far more difficult to stop than Kansas State. Carson Coffman, the Wildcats' quarterback, is no Andrew Luck.
"You want to go out and prove we're much better team than we were at Kansas State," linebacker Akeem Ayers said.
While Stanford has been billed as a Pac-10 contender much of the preseason, the Bruins were tapped eighth in the preseason media poll. And that relegation probably included most penciling in a win at Kansas State, a team the Bruins pushed around in 2009. With one of the toughest schedules in the nation -- Houston and Texas are the other two nonconference opponents -- there's more than a little bit of worry in Westwood that things could get ugly early.
Prince understands the thinking. He's just not buying it.
"I know how fans are. I was a big time UCLA fan before I joined the squad. I used to freak out over games like that, too," he said. "But it was just the first game of the season. There are still 11 games to be played. And then a bowl game. There is plenty of time to get better, but we've got to do it quickly."
Quickly, that is, if the Bruins hope to play that 13th game.