PASADENA, Calif. (GMC) -- The Stanford Cardinal took the field on Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl thinking about a possible return trip in January. They were one step closer towards that goal when they left a few hours later.
The Cardinal offense took the opening kick off and set the tone early with a drive that introduced the Bruins to Stanford football. The UCLA defense was obviously geared towards stopping the Stanford running game, but Stepfan Taylor took the ball on the first three plays anyway, eventually gaining 19 yards on a 3rd and 9 to earn the Cardinal's first first down of the game.
The drive continued methodically downfield with more from Taylor, a 12-yard run from backup Ricky Seale, and a few passes from Hogan, until the Cardinal faced 3rd and 4 from the UCLA 11. Hogan took the snap and immediately looked towards his left where Drew Terrell had split out wide and Zach Ertz had lined up in the slot. Ertz ran a corner route, and Terrell slipped underneath him in a play designed to tangle the defenders and release one receiver or the other. But the Bruins had disguised their coverage. What looked like man to man before the snap was actually zone, so both receivers were covered.
The Bruin pass rush eventually pushed Hogan out of the pocket and to his right, forcing him to look for other options. It looked for a minute like he might tuck and run, but the Bruins did a good job sealing off the running lanes, so he had to look to pass. Toilolo had run a short route into the right side of the end zone and was busy posting up his defender, but suddenly Terrell came back into the play, streaking unguarded across the end zone. It was an easy throw for Hogan, and the Cardinal had a 7-0 lead.
It seems like Hogan has a play or two like this every game, but they never get old. More than his ability and athleticism, it's his poise that truly impresses. With his primary reads (Ertz and Terrell) taken away and the pocket disintegrating, Hogan still had the poise to keep the play alive long enough to check his third option before completing the broken play by finding Terrell where he wasn't supposed to be. It's plays like this that will get Kevin Hogan into the Heisman conversation before his Stanford career is finished.
But Hogan wasn't the only redshirt freshman quarterback on the field on Saturday. UCLA's Brett Hundley has been the starter since the first week of the season, and he's been phenomenal. Statistically speaking, he's been the third-best quarterback in the conference behind Oregon's Marcus Mariota and USC's Matt Barkley, but sometimes the numbers don't tell the whole story. Sometimes you just need one play.
On 3rd and 4 from the 19, Hundley took the snap and felt pressure almost immediately from Trent Murphy and Chase Thomas. Murphy appeared to have him dead to rights, but he ended up grasping at air as Hundley stepped around him and skipped out towards the right side line. Shayne Skov came off of his man and rushed at him, but Hundley didn't let that bother him as he lofted a perfect pass thirty yards downfield to wide receiver Shaq Evans. Evans made the grab easily and added another forty yards of his own to complete the 71-yard gain.
Three plays later Hundley backpedalled ten yards before lofting a ball off his back foot towards the tight end Joseph Fauria. The pass was in the perfect spot, where only Fauria could catch it, and the Bruins had tied the score at 7.
The teams pushed the ball up and down the field through the end of the first quarter and into the second, with neither offense threatening until Stanford took over at their own 12 with 12:54 to play in the half. The Bruins have been penalized more than any team in the nation this year, so it shouldn't have been a surprise when the yellow flags started flying on Saturday. The first big call came during this drive on 2nd and 11 from the Stanford 23. Hogan saw Levine Toilolo locked in one-on-one coverage downfield with UCLA's best defender, linebacker Anthony Barr. The general rule seems to be that even when Toilolo is being tightly guarded, as he was here, he's still open if it's only one man guarding him. Hogan lofted the ball in Toilolo's direction, but Barr knocked it down -- and then came the penalty flag. Instead of 3rd and 11 from the 23, Stanford found itself with 1st and 10 at the 38. (I had a rather heated conversation with a UCLA fan two rows in front of me about this play. He contended that it was an awful call, and as proof he pointed out that he knew football. Well, Mr. Hothead, I've got a message for you in case you're reading this -- I've watched the replay, and it was a bad call. You were right, and I was wrong. I hope my apology helps your blood pressure return to normal.)
From there, Hogan did much of the work as he scrambled for 16 yards, hit Ertz on a beautiful touch pass for 25 on the next play, then found him again for 10 more two plays later to set up 1st and goal from the UCLA 10. Perhaps because he needed a rest after all that, or maybe because he wanted to remind everyone that the Sequoia formation still works, Hogan split out wide to the left and Anthony Wilkerson set up in the shotgun formation behind center. He took the direct snap, faked the handoff to Kelsey Young as he swept in front of him, then ran through a gaping hole into the end zone. Stanford 14, UCLA 7.
After the Stanford defense followed that score with a three-and-out, the Cardinal took over on their own 44 and wasted little time in scoring again. On 2nd and 3, Stepfan Taylor took the hand off and burst through a hole, breaking through an arm tackle just a few yards past the line of scrimmage. The Bruins knew the run was coming, so they had nine defenders within seven yards of the line, and both safeties crashed as soon as they saw the ball handed to Taylor.
Stanford had invited this defense by going with their jumbo set -- the standard five offensive linemen plus bookended tight ends (Ertz and Toilolo) and offensive lineman Dillon Bonnell wearing an unnamed #96 jersey so he could line up as a tight end alongside Ertz. Left guard David Yankey pulled across to the right, and fullback Ryan Hewitt took care of the defender on the right edge, so by the time Taylor took the ball from Hogan and surveyed his options, the hole was ready and waiting. There were simply too many enormous bodies on the right side for the Bruins to have any chance. Because all eleven of their defenders were engaged as Taylor broke through, all they could do was turn and chase as Taylor raced for the goal line. They wouldn't catch him, and the Cardinal was up by 14.
Just as it appeared the Cardinal might simply overwhelm UCLA, the Bruins came up with a break. Stanford's next possession fizzled, bringing the punting team out to kick the ball away from the Stanford 35. The snap was low, and punter Daniel Zychlinski had to field it on a hop. He bobbled it for just a second, but it was long enough to allow UCLA's rush to consume him. The ball popped loose as Zychlinski was tackled, and it was recovered by the Bruins to set up UCLA with 1st and 10 at the Stanford 22. (Worse than that, Zychlinski stayed down on the turf for a few minutes after the play and didn't return. There is no word yet on his availability for next week's game.)
The Stanford defense rose to the challenge, though, actually pushing the Bruins backwards and forcing them to settle for a 48-yard field goal to cut the lead to 21-10. The half ended uneventfully, but it probably shouldn't have. After the Bruins sacked Kevin Hogan on 3rd and 7 with 15 seconds left, Stanford faced fourth down on their own 48 yard line. Knowing his team had blocked six kicks in the previous three games, knowing Stanford's punter was hurt, and knowing he had two timeouts in his pocket, UCLA coach Jim Mora inexplicably led his team off the field as the clock bled down to zero. A big play there could've swayed the momentum as the teams went in for half time, but Mora let the opportunity pass.
UCLA's second possession of the second half ended badly for them. On 3rd and 9 from the UCLA 27, Hundley dropped back to pass and was quickly flushed out to his left. He squared is shoulders back around, then tried to force a pass back across the field a bit. Jordan Richards felt a receiver come back towards the play, so he broke on the ball and came with a Head & Shoulders interception. He caught the ball with one hand and pinned it between his helmet and shoulder pad, somehow keeping it off the turf as he fell to the ground.
Stanford came out with the same jumbo set they featured on Taylor's earlier touchdown run, and Bruins brought their defense up close again. The result was almost the same, except this time Taylor was pushed out of bounds at the two yard line. He finished it out with a one-yard touchdown drive three plays later, giving his Cardinal a 28-10 lead.
A quick word about Taylor. For the past two weeks he's shared the field with two finalists for the Doak Walker Award, which is given each year to the nation's top running back. Taylor is not a finalist, but for the past two weeks he's been the best running back on the field. Last weekend Kenjon Barner gained just 66 yards on 20 carries, and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin had a nearly identical 65 yards on 21 carries. Kulabafi, meanwhile, rushed 53 times for 303 yards with two touchdowns in those two games. Impressive.
Taylor's second touchdown had given the Cardinal an 18-point lead, but they weren't done. On the ensuing kickoff, linebacker Alex Debniak drilled return man Kenneth Walker and jarred the ball loose. Usua Amanam scooped it up and ran the ball into the end zone for Stanford's second touchdown in 13 seconds and 35-10 lead. The game was only a few seconds past the middle of the third quarter, but it was over.
Taylor didn't see the field again, the defensive starters spent more time on the bench than in the game, and eventually the Bruins simply faded away. (Yes, UCLA did manage to score another touchdown on an impressive run by Franklin, but that only changed the details, making the final score Stanford 35, UCLA 17.)
So Stanford has clinched a spot in Friday night's Pac-12 Championship game, and they'll spend the four days between now and then preparing for a team they know fairly well -- the UCLA Bruins. Right now the coaches and players are saying the right things -- they haven't achieved their goal, it's hard to beat a good team twice, they know the Bruins will play with desparation -- and as I left the stadium it seemed every UCLA fan was repeating the same mantra: the Bruins couldn't possibly play worse, the penalties can be eliminated, and a different UCLA team will show up in Palo Alto on Friday night.
I don't buy it. Stanford will slice through the Bruins and advance to the Rose Bowl on January 1st.
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[Photo Credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images]