After last week's dominant win over UCLA in the regular season finale, the expectation was for more of the same in Friday night's rematch in the Pac-12 Championship Game. It took about three and a half minutes for that expectation to wash away in the rain.
The Bruins might not have laid down last weekend in Pasadena, but they certainly didn't show the entire playbook. Last night in Palo Alto, however, they wasted no time at all establishing their offense behind redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley and senior running back Johnathan Franklin. Their opening drive looked like this: Hundley, Franklin, Hundley, Franklin, Franklin, Hundley, Hundley, and finally Franklin again for 51 yards and a touchdown. It was a fairly effortless drive, enough to raise a bit of concern.
After Remound Wright set up the Cardinal offense with a nice kick return to the 31, Stanford turned to its redshirt freshman quarterback and senior running back. Kevin Hogan and Stepfan Taylor accounted for all but two of the 69 yards as Stanford drove methodically down the field. On first down from the UCLA 34, Hogan dropped back and looked deep, but was forced to check down to Taylor when his deep options were covered. Taylor took the pass a yard or so behind the line of scrimmage, slipped through the arms of defensive lineman Cassius Marsh, then rumbled down the sideline before a host of Bruins finally took him down two yards short of the end zone.
The next play was absolutely beautiful. Hogan lined up under center behind the Hulk package with full back Ryan Hewitt behind him and Taylor behind Hewitt. All of the action went to the right, even before the snap, as Dillon Bonnell (an offensive lineman masquerading as a tight end) motioned from left to right to create an off-balanced line. There was more to the right after the snap with Hewitt crashing down for the block on the right edge of the line and David Yankey pulling around from his left guard position. When Hogan looked to his right to hand off to Taylor, there were too many signs pointing towards #33 for the defense to ignore, and every gold helmet headed in Taylor's direction. Unfortunately for the Bruins, Hogan kept the ball and spun back around to the left with nothing but green in front of him. It was a touchdown as soon as he turned the corner, and Hogan trotted across the goal line to tie the score at 7. It was so easy, I had to rewind and make my wife watch the play. "Look, sweetie, even I could have scored on this play!"
The Franklin & Hundley Show came back on stage, though, and they were still hitting the high notes with ease. After a personal foul penalty put the Bruins in a deep hole at 1st and 25 from their own 28, Hundley took two steps back before putting his foot in the ground and sprinting up field through the middle of the line.
There were almost no designed runs for Hundley last week, and this first one was a beauty. UCLA had lined up three receivers on the right, pulling A.J. Tarpley and both safeties in that direction, leaving Shayne Skov and cornerback Alex Carter as the only defenders on the left side of the field. Skov was taken out of the play by an offensive lineman, a wide receiver sealed off Carter, and Hundley was able to run 48 yards untouched before stepping out of bounds at the Stanford 24. Hundley finished the drive three plays later with a five-yard scramble for the touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
Six days earlier the Stanford pass rush had battered Hundley, sacking him seven times and rarely giving him time to find receivers downfield. This week the Bruins had adjusted by spreading the Cardinal defenders thin across the front with three- and four-receiver sets, lots of motion, and a healthy dose of swing passes to receivers and running backs in the flat. These quick-hitting plays kept Hundley's jersey clean and opened up massive alleys for Franklin in the middle of the field. After two possessions, there was serious cause for concern.
That concern grew when the subsequent Stanford drive stalled, and the Bruins began another march down field early in the second quarter. Another big run by Franklin, this one for 31 yards, put UCLA into Stanford territory, and the Cardinal defense showed no signs of being able to stop or even slow down the Bruins. They were in desperate need of a sack or a turnover to somehow swing the momentum back in their favor.
Ed Reynolds came up with the play his team needed. The Bruins came to the line at the Stanford 36 and sent tight end Joseph Fauria wide to the right. Hundley took the snap and locked in onto his tight end immediately. Indeed, the 6'7" Fauria had a clear mismatch against 6'1" cornerback Terrence Brown, but Hundley never saw Reynolds as he raced over from his safety position. Reynolds leapt to make the interception at the 19, somehow tiptoed along the sideline to avoid going out of bounds, then turned to race upfield. It felt like a game-turning moment as soon as he came down with the ball, but it quickly developed into something more as he dodged in and out of traffic before he finally broke free just across midfield and turned on his running back speed, with nothing but grass between him and an NCAA record-tying fourth interception return for a touchdown.
Streaking in from the left, however, was Hundley. He dove for Reynolds at the 5 and wrapped up his legs, but the ball appeared to break the plane of the goal line before Reynolds was down. Play-by-play man Gus Johnson called it a touchdown, but the referee saw it differently and ruled the play down at the one-foot line. The replays seemed to verify what most of us saw live, but the officials chose not to reverse the call. (No surprise, really. This was the same crew that worked the Notre Dame game and failed to reverse Taylor's would-be touchdown in overtime.)
As we watched the replays, my wife piped up. "Could you have scored on that play?" I love her, even when she twists the knife.
So Reynolds didn't get the record, but Taylor got the touchdown on the next play, plunging in from a yard out to tie the game at 14. Afterwards David Shaw pointed at Reynolds's play as one of the keys to the win. "That was the game changer. Take points off the board for them, and put points on the board for us. When you get a game-changing play like that, you have a good chance to win." (Video here.)
The Stanford defense came out after that touchdown and delivered their first three-and-out of the night, and when Taylor ran for five and thirteen yards on the first two plays of the ensuing drive, it felt like the Cardinal was about to take control of the game. Just as quickly, though, the drive stalled.
The Reynolds interception -- and some key adjustments by defensive coordinator Derek Mason -- seemed to have jump started the defense. Following that play and Taylor's touchdown, the Bruins had two three-and-outs and a six-play drive that gained just 22 yards. The Cardinal had scaled back the aggressive blitzing, instead choosing to drop seven or eight defenders into coverage, and cornerbacks Alex Carter and Terrence Brown were taking away the swing passes into the flat. The Bruins ran twelve plays over their final three possessions of the first half, and Franklin only touched the ball five times, rushing four times for eight yards and catching a seven-yard pass.
Stanford took over on their own 17 with 1:31 to play, and Hogan quickly pushed his team into field goal range. He looked nothing like a redshirt freshman in this two-minute drill, as he ran three times for 29 yards and completed four out of five passes for 39 more. Jordan Williamson capped off the drive with a 37-yard field goal at the gun to give the Cardinal its first lead of the game at 17-14.
When the Cardinal offense squandered a chance to build momentum as they punted four plays into the second half, it was disappointing. When UCLA took that punt and turned it into a game-tying field goal, it was more disappointing.
Stanford's offensive struggles continued on their next possession as they failed to earn a first down of their own (they got one from UCLA on a pass interference penalty), and gave the ball back to UCLA at the 20. From there, the Bruins came up with perhaps their best drive of the night. The swing passes were back in full effect as Hundley completed four short passes to three different receivers, but he also went deep once, hitting Shaq Evans for 20 yards down the right sideline. On the twelfth play of the drive, Hundley handed the ball to Franklin who waltzed twenty yards untouched for the go-ahead touchdown. UCLA 24, Stanford 17.
The third quarter ended three plays into Stanford's next possession, and I'll admit to being more than a little concerned. The cameras zoomed in on the UCLA sideline and found the Bruins mobbing each other and bouncing around, knowing they were but fifteen minutes from a Rose Bowl berth. The Cardinal players were subdued. "We kinda looked across the field and they were real riled up, and we knew we had to stay calm and play our style of football," explained Hogan.
I was less confident. I thought back to how sure I had been of victory, and I began thinking about an Alamo Bowl bid that would've been welcomed in August but felt now like failure.
The Bruins buoyed my spirits almost immediately, coming up with a personal foul penalty on the first play of the fourth quarter and moving the ball to the UCLA 32. When the Cardinal found themselves at 3rd and 15 from the 26, I started thinking about San Antonio again. Hogan, however, was living in the moment. In a rare show of Cardinal aggression, the call was for four verticals with one of them, Zach Ertz, cutting across short. If the receivers were covered deep, Hogan could simply drop it off underneath to Ertz. It would be short of the first down, but it would shorten the field goal attempt. If the safeties bit down on Ertz, as safeties often do on a team's leading receiver, something would be open deep. In this case, the safeties bit, and Drew Terrell was all alone in the end zone. Hogan's throw wasn't perfect, but it was good enough for the touchdown. Stanford 24, UCLA 24.
Once again, as they've done all season long, the defense responded when it was truly needed. UCLA started at the 8, sank back to the 4 after a holding penalty, then went no where on their next three plays. Terrell, who wasn't cleared to play in this game until just a few days ago, ran the punt back 18 yards to the UCLA 43, just one first down away from field goal range.
It took just one play to get that first down. I know most people are tired of the Sequoia/Wildcat formation, but my favorite play in the Stanford playbook is the jet sweep to Kelsey Young that they run out of the wildcat. They had shown that look at least twice before earlier in the game, but Young hadn't gotten the ball. On first down Anthony Wilkerson took the snap and handed it to Young as he sprinted past. Young turned upfield, spun through a tackle, then plowed his way through two or three defenders for a 23-yard gain to the UCLA 20. A holding penalty eventually doomed the drive, but "Ol' Dead Eye," Jordan Williamson, nailed the 36-yard field goal to give his team the lead at 27-24 with 6:49 to play.
UCLA took the kick off and it looked like the first quarter all over again. Hundley rushed for 12 yards, then Franklin went for 10 and 15 on the next two plays, and the Bruins were already on the Stanford side of the field. The Stanford defense held firm from there, however, and forced a punt with 4:39 to play.
The Bruins still had two timeouts, but two Stanford first downs would probably be enough to ice the game. For a moment, it seemed like they wouldn't even get one. The Bruins burned their two timeouts to stop the clock after first and second downs, so there were still more than four minutes to play as the Cardinal faced 3rd and 2 on the Stanford 39. Hogan handed the ball to Taylor, and he was stoned behind the line of scrimmage by the entire Bruin defensive line. Stanford would have to punt, and UCLA would have a world of time to work with.
All of those thoughts coursed through my brain before I realized that my eyes had deceived me. The play had been a read-option, and Hogan had read correctly. He had kept the ball, and now he was sprinting around the right side of the line untouched, breaking into the secondary and finally sliding after an eleven-yard gain, keeping the ball safe and the clock running. Brilliantly called, brilliantly executed.
The Cardinal couldn't manage another first down, however, so the Bruins got the ball back at their own 19 with 2:18 to play. Certainly enough time to get into field goal range. A roughing the passer penalty on Shayne Skov helped push the Bruins up to the 41, but Hundley had to convert a 4th and 7 three plays later to keep Bruin hopes alive.
It was a great play, but then things got a little odd. Hundley had completed his pass to Fauria at the Stanford 39 with 51 seconds remaining. Rather than hustling to the line of scrimmage to run a play, the Bruins chose to give up first down by spiking the ball to the stop the clock. It didn't really seem necessary since UCLA is used to moving at a quick pace and they only really needed another fifteen yards or so for a comfortable field goal attempt, but suddenly it was 2nd and 10.
Hundley completed a pass to Devin Fuller, who ran out of bounds to stop the clock after a five-yard gain, but now it was already third down instead of second. When Hundley's next pass fell incomplete, coach Jim Mora had to choose between going for it on 4th and 5 or sending out his freshman kicker to attempt a 52-yard field goal. He never hesitated.
Ka'i Fairbairn, who hit a 48-yarder last week with at least ten yards to spare, trotted in to try to tie the game. Fairbairn put his foot into the ball, and even though it definitely looked to have the distance, it was wide left almost immediately.
Kevin Hogan came out to take a knee, and the game was over. Stanford 27, UCLA 24.
I just finished watching the game for a second time, and it still gave me goosebumps when Stepfan Taylor -- Stanford's new all-time career rushing leader, by the way -- took off his helmet and grinned at what his team had accomplished. Think about what Taylor's seen in his four years. He was the back up to a Heisman finalist in 2009, then shared the backfield with another finalist in 2010 and '11 as the team earned consecutive BCS bids. Now, in his senior season, Taylor has become the most prolific runner in school history and helped to lead his team to its first outright Pac-12/10 championship in forty years. His career won't end in San Antonio or San Diego; he'll finish in the Rose Bowl.
This Pac-12 Championship game was a strange one. UCLA thoroughly dominated, rushing for 284 yards against the top rushing defense in the country and outgaining Stanford 461 yards to 325. There were vast stretches of time, pretty much all of the first and third quarters, when it seemed that UCLA wasn't just winning, they were winning because they were the better team.
In the end, though, Stanford took control by making the necessary adjustments on defense and coming up with enough big plays on offense to earn the win. (Ed Reynolds's Pick-Six-that-wasn't also helped.)
In a year when the Cardinal was expected to return to mediocrity and perhaps end the season without a bowl invitation, the team responded by beating USC, nearly beating Notre Dame, and finishing the season in unbelievable fashion, winning four consecutive games against ranked opponents, Oregon being one of them. (My resources are limited, but I can tell you that no school has done this in at least four years.)
And now Stanford heads to the Rose Bowl as the Pac-12 Champions, where they will play their fifth straight ranked opponent, either Nebraska or Wisconsin. But there's a whole month to talk about that. For now, revel in the victory. Play "All Right Now" on your iPod and jump at the right time, even though no one else can hear the song. Change your Facebook profile picture to a rose. Pull your Stanford sweatshirt out of the drawer and wear it with pride.
Celebrate, Cardinal fans. Celebrate.
[Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images]