In what has become a rarity in this prime time season, the Stanford Cardinal took the field beneath a bright autumn sun on Saturday afternoon intent on exorcising the demons from the previous weekend's loss to Utah. Instead of telling his team to forget about that defeat, Coach David Shaw had given some different advice. "Bring last week with you," he told them. "Bring the lessons learned about how hard you have to play, how smart you have to play, and how you have to finish."
His charges took all that to heart, and the result was a dominant victory over the ninth-ranked and previously undefeated UCLA Bruins.
There was little scoring early on, but there were signs that both the Stanford offense and defense were playing with renewed vigor. Offensively, Tyler Gaffney was getting the ball early and often, and while he wasn't getting big chunks of yardage, there was a definite sense that the gameplan involved landing these body blows early in order to exploit a tired Bruin offense in the second half. On defense, there were obvious concerns about UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, but he was contained in the early going as he completed only two passes and rushed for only seven yards in the first quarter.
Stanford's third drive of the afternoon started at their own 12 yard line, and the ball was in Kevin Hogan's hand on almost every play. After an opening four-yard rush from Anthony Wilkerson, Hogan took charge on the next six plays, rushing for 24 yards on three of them and completing passes on the other three for 40 more. The drive eventually stalled on the UCLA 14, but backup kicker Conrad Ukropina, in for an injured Jordan Williamson, split the uprights from 31 yards out for his first career field goal and a 3-0 Cardinal lead.
There was a missed opportunity late in the second quarter as Hogan threw an interception at the UCLA 6, but the story of the first half was the Stanford defense. Not only did they shut out the typically high-scoring Bruins, but they did so decisively. After UCLA's opening drive covered 38 yards in eight plays, the next four drives looked like this: 3 plays for -2 yards, 5 for 34, 5 for 15, and 3 for 5.
Even so, there was an useasy feeling at half time. The Cardinal had thoroughly dominated the first half -- the time of possession advantage was absurd, 20:30 to 9:30 -- but the scoreboard did not reflect this domination. With only a 3-0 lead and heading into a quarter that the Bruins had owned all season long, outscoring their opponents 77-0, there was a sense that the Cardinal was in danger.
UCLA, perhaps, had that same sense. They took the opening kick of the second half and came out throwing. Hundley's first pass was incomplete, but he connected on his next four. They were dinks and dunks, only gaining a total of 14 yards, but when he scrambled out of pressure on the next play and ended up gaining 30 yards, Stanford fans were reminded that this was an explosive player. Two plays later he scrambled for another 14, and the Bruins were suddenly in field goal range. Shayne Skov turned the momentum a bit with a six-yard sack on second down, and the Bruins were eventually forced to settle for a 38-yard field goal to tie the game.
The Bruins had gotten back to what they do, but the Cardinal responded by quickly getting back to what they do, which is pound the football with Tyler Gaffney. Gaffney carried the ball on the first four plays of the ensuing possession, gaining 29 yards and moving the ball almost to midfield. From there, Hogan fired a strike to Montgomery, who caught the ball just inside the UCLA 40. One defender wrapped him up at the 35, and three others joined at the 30, but Montgomery simply kept powering ahead until he was finally brought down at the 22. (The player wearing #88 last season was obviously an imposter who had the real Ty Montgomery tied up in his basement.)
After an eight-yard loss on an ill-advised reverse to Kelsey Young (Shaw took full responsibility for the blown call afterwards; he had inexplicably called the play to end up in Anthony Barr's front yard), the Cardinal found themselves in 2nd and 18 on the UCLA 30. No problem at all.
Hogan dropped back to pass, and as had been the case for much of the afternoon, he had plenty of time. Young Kodi Whitfield had started out slotted to the left, and he essentially ran straight down the field. Cornerback Anthony Jefferson trailed behind a bit, knowing that he had help up top from Ishmael Adams. Whitfield was running a post pattern into double coverage, but Hogan wasn't concerned. He fired a laser into the end zone and Whitfield made one of the best catches you'll ever see for the touchdown.
With Jefferson on his back, Whitfield leapt into the air just as he crossed the goal line and looked over his right shoulder for the ball, but the pass was just a touch behind him. He couldn't pivot back towards the ball, so instead he simply reached up and slightly behind with his right arm and plucked the ball out of the sky, as casually as a teenager catching the car keys on his way out the door. His hand cupped around the ball, and he pulled it to his chest just as he hit the ground. It was the best catch in the history of Stanford football.
The tension immediately lessened a bit with the lead at 10-3, and three plays later it disappeared completely. The plan for the Stanford defense going into the game was to make Brett Hundley a passer, and when the Bruin quarterback faced 3rd and 7 from his own 27, we saw why. Hundley had time to survey the field, but his pass to the left sideline had far too much air under it, giving safety Jordan Richards time to race over and intercept it at the 45. He would streak down the sidelines untouched, but an unnecessary holding penalty on James Vaughters negated the score and gave Stanford the ball back at the 40.
No matter. It took only six plays to cover the forty yards, the last yard coming on a touchdown dive by Gaffney for a 17-3 lead.
The Bruins answered on their next possession, finally finding the end zone on an eleven-play, 75-yard drive that finished with a three-yard touchdown pass from Hundley to Shaquell Evans on the first play of the fourth quarter. The odd thing about that UCLA drive was that even as the Bruins were moving the ball, it still seemed like the Cardinal defense was doing a good job.
But as good as that defense had been all game long, they were at their best in the fourth quarter. The offense didn't do them any favors as they opened the quarter with a three-and-out, drove to the UCLA 29 for a missed field goal on the next possession, and dropped another three-and-out after that, but it didn't matter. The defense wouldn't yield a thing.
UCLA's first three drives of the fourth quarter totalled only nine plays and amassed just five yards, with those five yards coming on a single possession. Each of those drives started with UCLA down by a touchdown, but each ended with Bruin disappointment -- particularly the last which saw Hundley's pass on 3rd and 10 fall into the waiting arms of Richards for his second interception of the afternoon.
With only 2:40 to play, Stanford probably needed but a single first down to ice the game, but Shaw did the right thing and kept playing football. Each play of the drive went to Gaffney, who carried five times for 32 yards before finding the end zone for a 24-10 Stanford lead. (Inexplicably, UCLA coach Jim Mora, Jr., perhaps still smarting from the loss, complained bitterly about that last touchdown, saying that he was surprised Shaw hadn't just sat on the ball. Why Mora expected Hogan to take a knee while the Bruins were using all three of their timeouts on that final drive in a fruitless effort to get the ball back, I'll never know.)
The game was over, but it came to its official end when Trent Murphy sacked Hundley on the game's final play for an appropriate finish. After a week in which observers wondered how good this Stanford team might be, the Cardinal came out and played their most complete game to date. Against the ninth-ranked and undefeated Bruins, the Cardinal had completely dominated the game. It was the formula we had expected to see each week -- an efficient, if unspectacular perfomance by the offense and a stifling effort from the defense.
Tyler Gaffney set career highs with 36 carries for 171 yards and 2 touchdowns. In fact, those 36 carries put him fourth on Stanford's single-game record list, just three behind Tommy Vardell's 39. Kevin Hogan wasn't spectacular (18 for 25 for 277 and a touchdown and an interception), but he was worlds better than he had been the previous two weeks. If there is a concern for the offense going forward, however, it's the knee injury suffered by Devon Cajuste in the second half. There were serious concerns at the time of the injury, but it's turned out to be only a bone bruise, which is easy for me to say since it isn't my knee. He might be able to play this week.
The defense, however, was definitely the story of the game. UCLA's offense had entered the game feeling pretty good about themselves and used to doing what they wanted to do. They exited with only ten points, 266 total yards, and a pedestrian 74 yards rushing. Brett Hundley, who had looked like a Heisman candidate in previous weeks, played his worst game of the season when his team needed him most. He was 24 for 39 for 192 yards with two interceptions and four sacks.
Serious challenges await the Cardinal, but all is well for now.
[Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]