Football: With the Pac-12 North Division title in sight, Stanford squares off against UCLA at the Rose Bowl
The silence was deafening in Autzen Stadium.
Jordan Williamson raced across the field in celebration, moments after his 37-yard field goal snuck inside the left upright. Devon Carrington, the backup safety who somehow chased down Marcus Mariota to save a touchdown in the first quarter, joined the mob that buried Williamson in elation. Stepfan Taylor too was in the chaos. Kevin Hogan, still in his helmet, congratulated his teammates and even almost cracked a smile in his postgame interview on the field.
Those were the celebratory images of last Saturday night, the images of Stanford players after upending No. 2 Oregon 17-14 in an overtime thriller.
But there was one more defining image: A calm David Shaw, in between praising his players for their unwavering resolve, stated, “I told our guys we don’t get a trophy for this win.”
The second-year head coach wasn’t trying to put a damper on one of the greatest wins in school history. Instead, he was stating the clear fact that while the Cardinal gained the inside track in the division race, it did not clinch the title just yet.
The time for that has now come.
Saturday, No. 8 Stanford (9-2, 7-1 Pac-12) finally has the chance to accomplish the season’s goal of winning the Pac-12 North when it takes on No. 17 UCLA (9-2, 5-2) in Pasadena. The Cardinal can lay its hands on the division title and take one step closer to the Rose Bowl with either a win or an Oregon loss.
“We’re only worried about this game, not next week,” Shaw said. “We’ve got one game this week. If we play it well enough, we’ll earn another one. We’ll deal with that when and if that happens.”
Stanford faces a tall order in a red-hot UCLA team that is coming off a huge victory of its own, a 38-28 toppling of then-No. 18 USC that marked the coronation of the Bruins as the Pac-12 South champions. Led by first-year head coach Jim Mora, the Bruins are in the midst of an incredible turnaround comparable to what Jim Harbaugh managed to accomplish during his stint on the Farm.
As Shaw pointed out, physicality seems to be a connecting thread between the two teams.
At the heart of UCLA’s high-powered offense is star running back Johnathan Franklin, a Doak Walker Award finalist who has averaged 131 rushing yards per game and found the end zone 12 times. Averaging over 6 yards per carry on the season, the redshirt senior gashed the Trojans last weekend for 171 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Fresh off its inspiring performance against Oregon, the Cardinal defense knows what it takes to contain a Doak Walker Award finalist. After all, the usually explosive Kenjon Barner mustered only 66 yards on 21 touches against Stanford’s stifling defense.
Inside linebacker Shayne Skov, named the national defensive player of the week for his team-high 10 tackles against the Ducks, looks to lead one of the nation’s best — if not the best — front sevens in slowing down Franklin. Oregon’s offensive players certainly might disagree, but Skov has room to get even better, especially when it comes to his explosiveness off the snap.
“[Skov] is still coming back,” Shaw said. “He’s completely healthy; there are no limitations. He can do everything. But the last thing that gets back is the explosion. It’s close to being back, but not completely back to being where it was before the injury. But it’s really only a matter of time.”
In what has been the year of redshirt freshman quarterbacks, Brett Hundley has steadily developed into a consistently efficient signal caller for the Bruins. So far this year the Arizona native has racked up 2,973 passing yards along with 25 touchdowns while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes.
Ranked in the nation’s top 20 in both points and total yards per game, the Bruins offense has driven down the field with ease all season. However, the spotty play of UCLA’s offensive line at times should be noted, as the Bruins are ranked 110th out of the 120 FBS schools in sacks allowed (3.45/game) and also fourth to last in the country in tackles for loss allowed (7.91/game).
Hoping for a repeat performance, Stanford’s defensive line will need to put constant pressure on Hundley in the same way it made Mariota visibly uncomfortable in the pocket last Saturday. With nose guard Terrence Stephens out with a personal matter, redshirt sophomore David Parry will make his first career start against the Bruins.
Shaw’s biggest message for his own offense this week had three words: protect the ball.
Despite moving down the field efficiently for much of the game, three of Stanford’s promising drives against Oregon ended in momentum-killing turnovers. Halfback Stepfan Taylor, who was not selected to join Franklin and Barner as a Doak Walker Award finalist, has uncharacteristically lost two fumbles in as many games after the sure-handed senior captain had held on to the ball in his previous 261 touches.
But Taylor continues to be the team’s cornerstone on offense.
“Everything about [Taylor] says success,” Shaw said. “His demeanor, his attention to detail, his work ethic, his seriousness and his unselfishness. There’s nothing he can’t do from the running back position. The NFL scouts see that versatility, the ability to do a little bit of everything. That’s going to help him on the next level.”
Hogan will face a hostile crowd for the second week in a row at the Rose Bowl Stadium. The redshirt freshman was as unstoppable as he was unflappable in the early going against the Ducks last weekend. After completing 12-of-13 passes for 96 yards and rushing three times for 18 yards and a touchdown, Hogan cooled off considerably before storming back for the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.
“[Hogan has] played well,” Shaw said. “He’s a young quarterback who made a couple of young quarterback mistakes [against Oregon], but he’s also the kind of guy who doesn’t dwell on them and moves on to the next play. It’s just the mentality he has.”
UCLA will be the third ranked opponent that Stanford has faced in three straight weeks. In October, some people started to question whether Stanford was seriously experiencing a decline after barely squeaking out a win over Washington State at home. A month later, some people are starting to wonder how close Stanford would be to a national championship if it had found a way to beat either Washington or Notre Dame.
Part of the Cardinal’s late-season success is because of its lights-out defense. Part of it is because the offense has delivered when it was most needed. But another part of it has to do with the simple fact that the team continues to believe in itself, even when written off like it was a week ago.
“It doesn’t matter who leaves or what pieces are gone,” said Skov. “That will always be one of the core tenets of this program. When guys have faith in one another and what we do and how we execute it, we’re going to win.”
One win is all that stands between Cardinal and its first appearance in the conference championship game.
Stanford hopes to claim the Pac-12 North Division title with a victory tomorrow against UCLA at the Rose Bowl. Kickoff is slated for 3:30 p.m., with national television coverage on FOX.