A decade ago, it took three seasons for Stanford to amass 10 wins. During those three miserable years, the Cardinal never finished higher than eighth out of the 10 teams in the Pac-10. Nineteen losses in conference play. Twenty-three total defeats. Those were the kinds of numbers that defined the program.
The juxtaposition of then and now is striking.
No. 8 Stanford (10-2, 8-1) dominated No. 16 UCLA (9-3, 6-3) 35-17 on Saturday at the Rose Bowl Stadium en route to clinching the coveted Pac-12 North Division title and an unprecedented three consecutive 10-win seasons. With the victory, the Cardinal earned the right to host the Pac-12 Championship Game in this Friday night’s rematch and now stands one win away from receiving an invitation back to Pasadena’s hallowed Rose Bowl gates.
Despite the fact that an Oregon loss would have automatically given Stanford a spot in the conference championship, the players weren’t scoreboard-watching prior to their battle with the Bruins. Stepfan Taylor, Usua Amanam and Jordan Richards all shook their heads in the postgame conference when asked if they knew Oregon had won before coming out to the field. Kevin Hogan claimed that he didn’t even know what time the game was.
“Didn’t watch the game,” head coach David Shaw said, referring to the Oregon-Oregon State contest. “Didn’t think that was important. The only thing that matters is what happens on our field. We tried to control that, and our guys did a good job today.”
The Cardinal got off to a torrid start on its opening drive of the game with Taylor carrying the ball six times, one of which was a draw play on third-and-long that turned into a 19-yard gain. Facing a critical third-and-4, Hogan rolled out to his right to find a wide-open Drew Terrell in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown that emphatically capped an 11-play, 75-yard drive.
But UCLA answered right back.
Quarterback Brett Hundley slipped a couple would-be tacklers to connect with wide receiver Shaquelle Evans for a 71-yard pickup. Two players later, the redshirt freshman escaped a blitz to deliver an accurate throw to tight end Joseph Fauria, who outjumped cornerback Alex Carter to come down with the 13-yard score.
“He’s so athletic,” Shaw said of Hundley. “He gets out of trouble and he’s so slippery. There’s a couple times where we got him sacked and he got out of it. They have some dangerous weapons. If you give that quarterback too much time he’s going to find them and he found a few tonight.”
Both Stanford and UCLA cooled down considerably on offense after their successful first possessions and proceeded to trade a few three-and-outs with each other. Although it conceded a couple big plays early in the game, the Cardinal defense impressively shut down star running back Johnathan Franklin, holding the redshirt senior to just 65 yards on 21 carries. Stanford has limited two Doak Walker finalists, Franklin and Kenjon Barner, to a combined 131 rushing yards in back-to-back weeks. With another victory over the Bruins this Friday night, it’s possible that the Cardinal will face Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, the third and last Doak Walker finalist, in the Rose Bowl.
Stanford’s offense regained its rhythm early in the second quarter. Hogan completed three passes for first downs and improvised a 16-yard scramble before the speedy Anthony Wilkerson punched it in from 10 yards out to give the Cardinal a 14-7 lead.
Following yet another fruitless Bruins possession, Taylor busted through a small gap for a 49-yard touchdown less than two minutes later to extend Stanford’s lead to two touchdowns.
“[Taylor] makes things a whole lot easier for me when he’s chipping away and breaks out those long runs like he did tonight,” said Hogan, who finished the game 15-of-22 passing for 160 yards and a touchdown. “When he gets yards and first downs, that opens up the passing game. But we’re run-first, and having a guy like Stepfan makes it a lot easier.”
The Cardinal’s worst play of the game came on special teams with less than five minutes left in the first half, when a short snap from Reed Miller resulted in punter Daniel Zychlinski receiving a hard hit from Anthony Barr and fumbling the ball at the Stanford 22-yard line. Doubtful to play in Friday’s rematch, Zychlinski would leave the game in a sling.
But the defense did more than just hold the Bruins, pushing them back 18 yards before Ka’imi Fairbairn bailed his team out with a 48-yard field goal.
UCLA’s offense continued to struggle in the third quarter, failing to cross midfield on its first three drives. When Hundley tried to force a throw on third-and-9 in Bruins territory, safety Jordan Richards made him pay with an acrobatic interception.
“I saw the quarterback scramble to his right and I saw the receiver come back across from the field, so I just broke on it,” Richards commented. “The ball came and I just tried to get my hands on it and take it to the ground with me.”
Three straight handoffs to Taylor was all it took for the Cardinal to capitalize off the turnover and see its lead increase to 28-10 midway through the third. The senior running back rushed for 142 yards on just 20 carries and also scored twice before Shaw yanked him out before the fourth quarter to keep his legs fresh for Friday. With two guaranteed games left, Taylor is 35 yards shy of Darrin Nelson’s all-time Stanford rushing record.
“Other [running backs] in other places get more publicity,” Shaw said. “It’s a shame honestly that he’s not on the Doak Walker list. I think that’s kind of ridiculous. [Taylor] is as good as anybody in the country. He may not be as flashy as other people, but he’s special with the ball.”
If the game wasn’t sealed after Taylor’s 1-yard touchdown, then the ensuing kickoff certainly put the nail in UCLA’s coffin. Special teams veteran Alex Debniak knocked the ball out from kick returner Kenneth Walker before Usua Amanam picked it up. Displaying his skills as a former running back, Amanam ran 20 yards laterally and staved off a strip attempt to reach the end zone.
Franklin scored on an 11-yard touchdown run before the fourth quarter, but UCLA’s attempted comeback would end there. As advertised, Hundley, who finished the game 20-of-38 passing for 261 yards, managed to evade a few sacks by extending plays with his feet. However, he still couldn’t avoid seven of them. The Cardinal defense has racked up 53 sacks so far this season, breaking the school record of 48 that was set by the Rose Bowl team in 1999.
After upsetting then-No. 2 Oregon 17-14 in overtime last weekend, the big question was whether if the Stanford players could keep their emotions in check and shift their focus to the Bruins. The final score convincingly answered that question.
“We knew the situation and what got us here,” Taylor said. “We try not to look back at the game from last week, win or loss. We just want to focus on the game ahead because [UCLA] deserved our attention. Every game is important. We have a mature enough team to be able to go out there and focus on the team ahead.”
Stanford hosts UCLA for a rematch on Friday night in the Cardinal’s first Pac-12 Championship appearance.