Pasadena (GMC) -- Centuries and centuries ago during the reign of the Aztec empire, slaves were often sacrificed to the gods. After binding a subject to a stone slab, a priest would carve the heart out of his chest and hold the organ up to the sun for the victim to see as his final breaths rattled from his lungs. Much the same thing happened in the Rose Bowl on Saturday night as the Stanford Cardinal ripped the collective heart out of a UCLA team that had looked all but assured of finally getting a win in a series that has now gone towards the Cardinal nine games in a row.
Recent games in the series have been dominated by Stanford, and it looked in the early moments as if this game might be headed in the same direction. Even before I was able to make my way into the stadium and climb the steps to my seat in Row 71, quarterback Ryan Burns came out firing, completing his first three passes and quickly moving the ball into Bruin territory. With that established, Burns gave the ball to McCaffrey on the next two snaps, both thirteen-yard gains, and it looked for a moment like the Cardinal would have a 1st and 10 on the UCLA 20. But a yellow flag had fluttered to the turf, and instead it was 1st and 20 from the 30 yard line; a few seconds later a false start pushed the offense back to the 35. Burns was able to push back into field goal range, mainly on the strength of a nice 13-yard scramble, but eventually they'd have to settle for a 37-yard boot from Conrad Ukropina and an early 3-0 lead.
When the defense greeted Josh Rosen and the UCLA offense with a three-and-out, it seemed like the stage was set for a blowout. It might seem foolish to think such thoughts only seven minutes into a road game with a solid opponent, but all signs certainly pointed in that direction. The Bruin defense hadn't stopped the Stanford offense, after all, the referees had, and there was no reason to believe the Cardinal wouldn't march down the field again, this time not stopping until they got to the end zone.
It took seven plays to cross midfield, but then Burns made his first mistake of the day. On 2nd and 1 from the UCLA 42, Burns dropped back to pass and locked eyes with wide receiver Taijuan Thomas. If he had looked just a bit more to the outside he'd have seen Trenton Irwin uncovered for an easy first down, but he had already decided on his first read. He fired his pass without ever seeing UCLA's Kenny Young, and the Bruin linebacker easily ducked underneath Thomas, made the interception, and rumbled 40 yards to the Stanford 26.
It took Rosen only six plays to find his way into the end zone, with the touchdown coming on a nice pass over the middle to tight end Nate Iese for the ten-yard score and a 7-3 UCLA lead.
Keller Chryst made a brief appearance on the next Cardinal possession, completing a six-yard pass to McCaffrey on first down, but throwing incomplete to Dalton Schultz on third down. (That play was broken up by defensive back Tahaan Goodman with a hit that easily could've been ruled targeting; we'd hear from Goodman again before the half was over.) When this drive stalled after that incompletion, Chryst returned to the bench. He wouldn't be seen again.
Another fruitless UCLA possession gave the ball back to the Cardinal at its own 38, and Burns returned to lead his team into Bruin territory once again. On 3rd and 15 from the UCLA 37, Burns hit wide receiver Francis Owusu for a 17-yard gain and what should've been a first down. Just as Owusu earned that first down, however, Goodman flew in and delivered an illegal hit, leading with the crown of his helmet and striking Owusu in his helmet. Owusu lost possession of the ball as he crumpled to the turf, and the Bruins' Adarius Pickett recovered.
Even from seventy-one rows up, it was clear that Owusu had been seriously injured. He lay awkwardly on the turf as his teammates immediately began calling to the sideline for assistance. Fellow receiver Michael Rector went directly to the officials and began lobbying for the flag he knew should've been thrown, but to no avail.
The two still frames above show you everything you need to know. On the left is the moment of impact, with the crown of Goodman's helmet clearly driving into Owusu's facemask. On the right, just a fraction of a second later, Owusu's head has been twisted violently to the left. Not surprisingly, the result was a concussion. Owusu was helped off the field and into the locker room, and he won't be available this week.
What was surprising, however, is that not only did the on-field officials fail to throw a flag for targeting, the replay officials confirmed that decision even after viewing the same replays that convinced the rest of the country that a penalty was warranted. Both ABC announcers were in agreement, and Chris Fowler went so far as to suggest that coaches could use video of the play to define targeting for their players. Twitter was filled with vitriol, but not only from Stanford fans. College football reporters from around the nation quickly voiced their opinion, and all were flabbergasted that the officials had failed to make what appeared to be an obvious call.
That night and in the days following the game, Coach Shaw would maintain that the officials had been in the wrong, and he emphasized the need to keep players safe. While acknowledging that Owusu had not been a defenseless player at the time of the collision, a key criteria officials use when determining targeting penalties, Shaw still felt a penalty was warranted. "I know that Francis Owusu was technically not a quote-unquote defenseless player," he explained, "but in the era we're in right now, in the mode where we're trying to make the game safer, you should throw a flag. It should be a penalty. The initial contact was helmet-to-helmet. It's not what we want. It's exactly what we don't want."
The Pac-12, however, doesn't think that way. The lead speaker on the second day of Pac-12 Media Day in July was VP of Officiating, David Coleman. Coleman spoke to the assembled media and explained that the officials' point of emphasis in 2016 would be uniform violations -- socks matching, jerseys tucked in, towels of appropriate length, stuff like that. Player safety, apparently, wasn't a concern then, nor is it now.
The conference released a statement two days after the fact supporting the decision made by its officials:
When analyzing NCAA Playing Rule 9-1-3, which states “No player shall target and make forcible contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet” it was determined that the crown of the helmet was not used. While there certainly was helmet to helmet contact, neither the game officials on the field or the replay officials called targeting because the contact was with the front of the helmet and not the crown (top) of the helmet.
I suppose the crown can be a vague area, but scroll back up and look at the frame on the left. That's the crown of the helmet, and I think everyone who doesn't work for the Pac-12 understands that.
While Owusu's health was the primary concern, the recovered fumble was obviously a huge turning point in the game. The Stanford offense had been gathering momentum, but after taking possession at their own 20, the Bruin offense produced its best drive of the game, marching 70 yards before settling for a 27-yard field goal from JJ Molson. UCLA would eventually take that 10-3 lead to half time, and while the Bruins had played well, the Cardinal could easily have had the lead.
Stanford's first possession of the second half looked promising, starting with three solid runs from McCaffrey and eventually making its way into Bruin territory, but it wasn't until the second possession that they were able to put any points on the board. The UCLA defense had wisely focused on containing McCaffrey, and although he'd finish with a game-high 138 yards rushing, his longest gain of the day was only 13 yards. On this drive, however, the Cardinal would finally get the big play that had been so elusive all evening. The Stanford offense is most dangerous when McCaffrey and Bryce Love are on the field together, and on first down from the 49 Love lined up in the left slot with McCaffrey in his standard position in the backfield. Burns faked the handoff to McCaffrey, drawing eight defenders into the scrum at the line of scrimmage, and then handed the ball to Love, who was reversing around to the right.
As soon as Love got the ball, it was clear to everyone in the stadium that he'd have a huge gain. He had blockers in front of him, and only three UCLA defenders. It was probably the easiest thirty-yard run Love will ever have, and suddenly the Cardinal was in business at the UCLA 21. Once again, however, the drive would stall, but a Ukropina field goal would cut the lead to 10-6.
It was a mostly frustrating evening for the offense, but the defense was holding its own. When the Bruins tried to respond to that field goal by driving into Stanford territory, they found themselves in a critical 4th and 4 from the Stanford 33. They could've chosen to punt and pin the Cardinal deep, or they could've tried a 50-yard field goal, but UCLA coach Jim Mora, perhaps in an admission of how desperately he and his team needed a win over Stanford, asked his offense to stay out on the field. In one of the game's most important plays, Rosen dropped back to pass. Even with only four defenders rushing, Harrison Phillips was able to collapse the pocket and pull down Rosen for a nine-yard sack, turning the ball over to the offense at the Stanford 42.
Three quarters of steady pounding by the Stanford offensive line began to pay dividends on this drive, as McCaffrey rushed for 27 yards on this possession, but there was more frustration as Burns wasn't able to convert a critical third down and Ukropina came in to nail his third field goal of the night. Yes, the Stanford offense looked marginally better, but the Cardinal still trailed, 10-9.
The UCLA offense had been even more inept than Stanford's in the second half, with possessions that looked like this: punt, punt, turnover on downs. One more stop of the Cardinal would give Ukropina a chance to put his team ahead, but the Bruins were finally able to string together three first downs and drive all the way to the Stanford 18 before their drive stalled and they had to settle for a field goal.
With the score 13-9 and only 6:32 to play, the Stanford offense chose the worst possible time to come up with a three and out. Worse than that, confusion on the sidelines cost the Cardinal valuable time. Ryan Burns kept the ball on a read option on 3rd and 3, but he was spotted just short of the first down marker. Because I've been watching David Shaw for five full seasons now, I had no doubt that he would punt and ask his defense to get the ball back one more time. But instead of rushing the punt team out on the field to conserve valuable time, he waited. He let the play clock wind all the way down -- with the game clock winding down as well -- before calling timeout.
Watching live it made no sense, but Shaw was questioning the spot. I assume that he was waiting to get word from his staff about the viability of a challenge, so he couldn't do anything until he got that word. He chose to challenge, but the call was upheld, and the timeout (and thirty seconds) was lost.
The Bruin offense was able to burn 2:35 off the clock and force the Cardinal to use the rest of their timeouts, but Ryan Burns still got one more shot. Stanford took over on its own 30 with 1:58 to play. Trailing by four, Burns would have to do something he hadn't come close to doing all game -- he'd need to engineer a touchdown drive, and he'd have to do it without any timeouts. Impossible.
But on the first play of the drive Burns looped a pass towards the sideline for a 23-yard completion to Irwin, and suddenly they were in Bruin territory at the 47. Two plays later he hit J.J. Acrega-Whiteside for fourteen yards, and two plays after that he went back to Irwin for fourteen more. The Cardinal hadn't been inside the UCLA 20 since the first drive of the game, but now they had 1st and 10 at the 19 and everything was possible.
A seven-yard pass to Irwin on 2nd down brought up an obviously huge 3rd and 3 from the UCLA 12, and Shaw made his gutsiest call of the day. With no way to stop the clock if the play had come up short, Burns handed the ball off to McCaffrey. He needed three yards, and he got four, giving his squad a 1st and goal at the UCLA 8.
After clocking the ball on first down, Burns settled under center with fifth-year senior Michael Rector to his right and inexperienced sophomore Arcega-Whiteside to his left. He dropped back at the snap and looked immediately to his left where Arcega-Whiteside was locked in one-on-one coverage with a much smaller defender. Defensive back Nate Meadors is listed as just 6'1", and JJAW's checks in at 6'3", but afterwards Shaw spoke about two things -- his receiver's exceptional leaping ability, and all the reps he and Burns had had with this play throughout last season when both were buried on the scout team.
The play in question was an end zone fade. With his receiver and the defender hand-fighting and jockeying for position, Burns floated the ball perfectly towards the side of the end zone, putting it in a place where only his target could reel it in. Arcega-Whiteside, who hadn't caught a pass before this night, leaped high into the air and made the catch of his life, a touchdown that gave his team a 16-13 lead.
The Rose Bowl stadium had been deafening as Burns had stood at the line of scrimmage, but suddenly everything went deathly silent. Never in my life have I heard such a contrast in crowd noise from one second to the next, and it was absolutely beautiful.
Considering the struggles the offense had throughout the night, this drive was improbable enough, but it becomes more so when you look closely. This wasn't Kevin Hogan, Devon Cajuste, and Michael Rector; it wasn't even Burns, Rector, and Dalton Schultz. Ryan Burns completed five passes for 66 yards, and all five of those balls had gone to his two sophomore receivers. This was a drive that even Andrew Luck would've been proud to author, so it will be interesting to see what this does for not only Burns's confidence but also the coaching staff's confidence in him. Without a doubt, this drive will have staying power.
There were a few sticky moments once Josh Rosen and the offense came back out on the field to try to make the most of the twenty seconds remaining on the clock, most notably when Kenneth Walker III slipped behind safety Dallas Lloyd and was temporarily wide open. Rosen spotted him immediately and uncorked a laser that seemed destined to put the Bruins in field goal range at the very least. From out of nowhere, however, safety Justin Reid closed down on the play and broke it up cleanly, driving the next to last nail in the UCLA coffin. Linebacker Joey Alfieri finished the job on the next play, sacking Rosen and forcing a fumble that Solomon Thomas picked up and returned 42 yards for a salt-in-the-wound touchdown as time expired, giving the Cardinal a ho-hum 22-13 win.
Oh, and how many times in a row has Stanford beaten UCLA?