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UCLA football: The focus is on Stanford's Toby Gerhart

September 29, 2009 | 12:05 pm

Toby

Toby. Toby. Toby.

That’s the buzz swarming around UCLA’s game at Stanford this week. The unexpected rise, at least for the moment, has these teams being portrayed as Pacific 10 Conference front-runners. That made Cardinal running back Toby Gerhart the easiest place to focus.

There are some good reasons. Gerhart is the nation’s third leading rusher, averaging 129 yards per game. UCLA comes in tied for ninth against the run, giving up 74.3 yards per game.

That allowed for quickly researched questions for the conference’s media call Tuesday.

Should Gerhart be a Heisman Trophy contender?

“Well yes, I believe so,” Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He means so much to our team. He’s the shining star on our team. He does kind of what [a most valuable player] does. He was our MVP last year and he’s running even better this year.”

So stopping Gerhart becomes priority No. 1 for UCLA.

“You better put on big boy pads,” UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel said. “They make no bones about it, they’re coming at you. They are saying they’re going to win in the trenches. You got to be able to manage the point of attack. It’s a great challenge for our front seven, and for our guys in the back. You start nosing up, trying to get eight, nine guys in the box, and you risk giving up a big play.”

Gerhart, who had 1,136 yards rushing in 2008 and 516 this season, does rate the attention. But this game is likely to come down to the quarterbacks, who are on different career paths.

Stanford’s Andrew Luck, a redshirt from Houston, has Texas-size expectations. He was ranked fourth nationally among pro-style quarterbacks by Rivals.com. He sits on the precipice of that potential, still awaiting a breakthrough game.

Luck threw for 276 yards and two touchdowns against Wake Forest, but the Cardinal came up short in a 24-17 loss. He has averaged nine completions in Stanford’s three victories.

UCLA senior Kevin Craft, on the other hand, is the relief pitcher who could be making his last collegiate start, depending on how starter Kevin Prince’s fractured jaw mends.

While Craft’s presence causes many Bruins fans to get nervous, he managed the offense well enough in a 23-9 victory over Kansas State. The Cardinal defense is significantly better than Kansas State, but it is not the “Thunder Chickens,” the backbone of Stanford’s Rose Bowl win in 1972.

Craft, Stanford fans will remember, led an 87-yard touchdown drive in the last two minutes to beat the Cardinal last season.

Other UCLA/Stanford notes:

-- The status of Stanford running back Jeremy Stewart remains vague. He injured his right knee early in the 34-14 victory over against Washington on Saturday and Harbaugh remains coy.

“It doesn’t seem like he did anything too severe,” Harbaugh said. “His knee is fine, his ankle is fine, and there is no soreness in the ankle. I expect him back.”

Asked whether he meant this week, Harbaugh said, “Most likely, but we’ll know more today.”

Stewart, a 6-foot, 200-pound junior, has 107 yards rushing, averaging 6.3 yards per carry, backing up Gerhart.

-- UCLA has won the last five games in this series. Stanford’s last victory came in 2001, when a fourth-ranked UCLA team went to The Farm with a 6-0 record and lost, 21-14.

 -- Chris Foster

Chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

Photo: Toby Gerhart. Credit: Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images

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