There are four words that can best describe the UCLA Bruins' season to this point: So far, so good.
A 3-0 record, including a victory at Tennessee, and being the last remaining unbeaten team in the Pac-10 Conference is certainly showing the progress that I said the Bruins would show this season.
The defense has been as good as advertised, leading the nation in interceptions (with safety Rahim Moore having five), and the offense—particularly the offensive line—has shown improvement over last year's ineptness.
The L.A. Times reported today that this upcoming contest this Saturday with the Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto will be the biggest in the Rick Neuheisel era, and I agree with that.
Should UCLA win this Pac-10 opener and go to 4-0, people will no doubt start to take notice and acknowledge that the Bruins have improved. But it will not be easy...
Stanford has also been solid this season, posting a 3-1 record which includes beating the team that beat the USC Trojans, Washington, by a comfortable margin.
Toby Gerhard, the Cardinal's senior running back, is an absolute stud; strong and powerful, he gained 200 yards in their 34-14 win over the Huskies last week.
Stopping Gerhard will be essential for UCLA if they hope to win the game. Fortunately, with players like Brian Price on the defensive line and Reggie Carter at linebacker, as well as the Bosworth twins, Kyle and Korey, the Bruins do have the personnel to contain him. As long as the defense performs up to their abilities, UCLA will have a chance to win.
Kick returner/wide receiver Chris Owusu is dangerous as well; he already ran back three kickoffs for touchdowns this season, tying a conference record. It may be a good idea for UCLA to not kick to him, or at least kick away from him.
And as for the Bruins' offense, they need to continue showing the progress that they have shown thus far.
The offensive line, led by center Kai Maleva, needs to keep providing the protection and improving, and Kevin Craft cannot regress to the old Craft: making mistakes and throwing interceptions. It is imperative that he builds on the improvement that he showed against Kansas State.
If that happens, UCLA's offense will be fine. If last year's Craft shows up against Stanford on Saturday, however, then the Bruins may be in trouble.
Personally, even though the Cardinal is a five-point favorite over the Bruins, I feel UCLA can win the game if they perform well and not make mistakes or turn the ball over.
As such, here's what I think the score will be:
UCLA 27, Stanford 17
While not exactly a must win for the Bruins, this is certainly a need-to-win game, a key contest as far as how the rest of the season may go.
Putting it another way: A 4-0 record would look much, much better than a 3-1 record, especially considering that UCLA will face Oregon and California in the next two games.
I've made my prediction as for how the game will unfold—let's see if it holds up.