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Fisher: Keys to tonight’s Pac-12 Championship Game

Well here comes the rematch. For Stanford to get to that elusive Rose Bowl for the first time in over a decade, the Cardinal needs just one more win over the same UCLA Bruins team it beat decisively just six days ago.

The biggest key to tonight’s Pac-12 finale will be the adjustments that each team has been able, or has failed, to make. Stanford’s football team was better than UCLA’s last Saturday in Pasadena, and it wasn’t even close. Stanford was far from perfect, however, and will still require changes for tonight’s game.

I can’t guarantee a winner tonight, but here are the changes each team will look to make if it wants to represent the Pac-12 at the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Stanford:

Hold onto the football

Stanford was extremely fortunate to have avoided a turnover mess on Saturday. The Cardinal put the ball on the ground four different times, but UCLA could only recover one of the four fumbles. Remound Wright, Anthony Wilkerson and Kevin Hogan — who also escaped a fumble in overtime against Oregon — need to be much more careful, especially with a rainstorm brewing.

The one fumble UCLA did recover was on the play that injured senior punter Daniel Zychlinski. Freshman long snapper Reed Miller has seen his ups and downs since Stanford threw him into the fray due to the Cardinal’s lack of a capable veteran, but Reed’s snap to Zychlinski on the play was not good.

The long snaps by Miller will be extremely important tonight for two reasons. First, snapping and holding will be much tougher due to the wet and potentially muddy conditions expected on the field. And, perhaps more importantly, the holder and punter receiving Miller’s snaps will be a new starter, junior Ben Rhyne. Rhyne will be under a lot of pressure in his first start as the punter and holder, so the easier Miller can make it on him, the better Stanford’s chances are to avoid devastating negative plays.

Build a first-quarter lead

This isn’t really an adjustment, but it is one change that could lead to an easy Stanford victory. UCLA is going to come out motivated, but I don’t think everyone in the Bruins locker room fully believes that UCLA can beat Stanford.

In the first game, Stanford took the opening kickoff and masterfully waltzed down the field for an easy touchdown, sucking the energy out of the Rose Bowl. However, after immediately forcing UCLA into a third-and-4, Stanford let Brett Hundley escape the pressure for a big 71-yard pass to Shaq Evans. UCLA scored three plays later, giving the Bruins — and their crowd — new life (at least until the third quarter).

But Stanford dominated physically for much of the game. If the Card can bring that same intensity early and add some offensive execution, it could jump out to a big lead early. If Stanford does grab that lead, I think many of UCLA’s players will mentally begin to throw in the towel. With so much on the line, Stanford can’t let this game go down to the wire, or else one mistake — be it a dropped pass, a missed tackle or a blown call by a referee — could rob Stanford of a Rose Bowl.

UCLA

Cut down on the penalties

Obviously, nothing involving penalties is ever entirely in a team’s control. Many analysts argue that there’s holding on every single play; it’s just only called when a referee decides to throw the flag. That’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, and UCLA had better hope its 12-penalty performance last Saturday was just a fluke.

I don’t know if UCLA is good enough to beat Stanford. What I do know is that UCLA will not beat Stanford with 12 penalties for 135 yards. To limit the penalties, UCLA’s players will have to play much smarter and fight harder to get in a position where they won’t need to commit penalties. If not, the Bruins may as well not even show up at Stanford Stadium tonight, because Stanford will be hoisting that Pac-12 championship trophy.

Don’t hold onto the football in the pocket

This is the one adjustment of the game that falls entirely on one man’s shoulders, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley’s. Hundley is an athletic specimen who can also throw the ball pretty accurately. However, Hundley has one big flaw, and that is his tendency to hold onto the football for way too long.

When facing Stanford, that might be the worst flaw a quarterback could have. Stanford leads the nation in sacks per game and demonstrated why in a #PartyInTheBackfield at the Rose Bowl last week. Stanford sacked Hundley seven times, and honestly it should’ve been higher, were it not for a few missed opportunities.

Hundley has two choices to avoid a repeat performance: He can roll out of the pocket or he can throw the ball quickly. For UCLA to win this game, Hundley will probably have to do both of those things well for long stretches. Hundley looked great while rolling to his right — his longest throw of the game, a 71-yarder to Shaq Evans, came when Hundley escaped the pass rush and rolled right — but he didn’t do it nearly enough last week. If he can’t make more plays like that, UCLA will have a tough time pulling off the upset.

The longest pass of Sam Fisher’s career was a 71-inch flea-flicker in paper football. Recommend some finger-strengthening techniques at safisher “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter at @samfisher908.

About Sam Fisher

Sam Fisher is the managing editor of sports for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 244. Sam also does play-by-play for KZSU's coverage of Stanford football, Stanford baseball and Stanford women's basketball. In 2013, Sam co-authored "Rags to Roses: The Rise of Stanford Football," with Joseph Beyda and George Chen.
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