For nearly all of Stanford’s Saturday night showdown against UCLA, it looked like the Bruins had what it took to hand the Cardinal their first defeat of the 2016 season.
That changed in a hurry in the final two minutes, when senior quarterback Ryan Burns led the Cardinal on a 70-yard touchdown drive to give them a lead with 24 seconds remaining. Junior defensive end Solomon Thomas then returned a Josh Rosen fumble for a touchdown as time expired, cementing No. 7 Stanford’s 22-13 victory and robbing UCLA of a chance to break its eight-game losing streak against the Cardinal.
In a game in which both teams struggled to consistently execute on offense, the score explosion of the last few minutes left Stanford (3-0, 2-0 Pac-12) feeling lucky to escape with a win in Pasadena — and the Bruins wondering what might have been. UCLA (2-2, 0-1) kept the Cardinal out of the end zone for 59 of the game’s 60 minutes and largely contained Heisman contender Christian McCaffrey, but the Bruins couldn’t get the final stop they needed to get their first win over the Cardinal in the David Shaw era.
“They kicked our backsides pretty well, early and often,” Shaw said after the game. “They got us on both sides [of the ball]. We made too many mistakes, and they made too many plays.”
McCaffrey would finish with a respectable 138 rushing yards, but for once, he wasn’t the hero of the Cardinal’s comeback performance. That honor went to sophomore receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who out-jumped a defender to pull down Burns’ touchdown pass and give Stanford the lead with seconds to go in the fourth.
“[It was] surreal, I’ll tell you what,” said Arcega-Whiteside. “I’ve been dreaming about [getting] a game-winning touchdown since I was little… At the same time, I’m more happy that everybody contributed on the last drive and that they trusted me to make the final play.”
Arcega-Whiteside hadn’t recorded a catch before Saturday’s game but finished as Stanford’s second-leading receiver on the night with three catches for 29 yards. Sophomore Trenton Irwin enjoyed a breakout game for the Cardinal as well, notching 7 catches for 81 yards as Burns struggled to find his preferred targets, McCaffrey and fifth-year senior Michael Rector.
It was the Cardinal defense that was the main highlight for the team for most of the night, however, as it held UCLA to a stingy 2.3 yards per carry and prevented Rosen from taking over the game with his arm. The Bruins’ sophomore phenom finished 18-27 with 248 yards but proved unable to find the end zone except when his team was set up on a short field by a Burns interception in the first quarter.
Rosen’s efforts nearly proved enough, as senior Eddie Vanderdoes and the UCLA defense put on a highlight reel of their own by shutting the Cardinal down in the red zone. Prior to the final drive, the Bruins held Stanford to just a single completion in the second half as they continually rose to every challenge that the Cardinal presented them with.
“Their front seven is really talented,” Burns said after the game. “That secondary is really talented — they were creating problems for us. I wasn’t making the best throws, and I definitely didn’t make the best decisions. [But this is] the kind of team we are — we’re never going to give up; we’re never going to back down.”
Kicker Conrad Ukropina was called on frequently to keep Stanford in the game, and the fifth-year senior obliged by going a perfect 3-for-3 to keep the Cardinal within a possession of their Southern Californian rivals.
In the end, it took a mistake on special teams by the Bruins to truly jumpstart the Stanford offense. A kick-catch interference was called on UCLA’s Marcus Rios on a Bruins punt with 2:05 left in the fourth quarter, giving Stanford a critical 15 yards of field position at the beginning of the team’s final decisive scoring drive. The penalty provided a crucial shift in momentum for the Cardinal, and Burns followed it up by completing 5 of his next 8 passes, culminating in his 8-yard toss to Arcega-Whiteside.
“We knew we could do what we did,” said Burns. “[It was just a matter of] making sure everyone was in tune with what we were doing and executing well.”
Stanford will need to figure out its offensive problems in a hurry, as the No. 10 Washington Huskies (4-0, 1-0) and the Pac-12’s second-ranked defense awaits the team in Seattle this Friday.
The Cardinal may have to make the trip without some of their key players. Junior cornerback Alijah Holder, junior cornerback Quenton Meeks and senior receiver Francis Owusu all left the Rose Bowl with injuries, and their status is unknown for the trip to Washington this week. Senior fullback Daniel Marx was also injured early in the fourth quarter but returned to finish the game.
For the most part, the players from further down Stanford’s depth chart stepped up to fill these empty spots against UCLA. Junior cornerbacks Terrence Alexander and Alameen Murphy made a number of plays to contain the Bruins’ talented wide receivers, and Arcega-Whiteside proved more than capable while stepping in for Owusu.
The Huskies feature some of the conference’s best cornerbacks and receivers, however, and could provide a stiff test to these comparatively untested alternatives.
The Cardinal will kick off against Washington this Friday at 6 p.m on ESPN.
Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.