By King Jemison
Stanford (3-2, 3-2 Pac-12) will end its season at the Rose Bowl. Though this season finale is not a New Year’s Six bowl game, the Cardinal should arrive in Pasadena with the same sense of accomplishment as if they won the Pac-12.
Perhaps no team in college football has faced more adversity as a result of COVID-19. Yet after a win at Oregon State last Saturday, Stanford now has a three-game winning streak for the first time since 2018. The Cardinal are playing like one of the best teams in the Pac-12 despite staying on the road since Dec. 1.
Stanford’s decision to opt out of a bowl game ensured that Saturday’s game at UCLA (3-3, 3-3 Pac-12) will be its final contest of the season. Both the Bruins and Cardinal have shown significant improvement after 4-8 seasons in 2019. In last year’s matchup, UCLA snapped an 11-game losing streak to Stanford. The Cardinal can now reclaim yet another California rivalry after securing Big Game revenge earlier this season.
Despite playing only six games, Stanford proved this season that it will not fade quietly into the Pac-12 background. The Cardinal finished just one win out of the Pac-12 North lead. Had senior quarterback Davis Mills not been sidelined with a false positive for the Oregon opener and the entire week of practice leading up to the Colorado game, Stanford might just be playing for a Pac-12 Championship.
However, rather than playing the “What If” game, the Cardinal can secure a winning season in this makeshift conference matchup. Here are three keys to closing 2020 on a four-game winning streak:
1) Control the clock
Stanford is second in the Pac-12 and 21st nationally in average time of possession. The Cardinal control the clock for an average of 32:18 per game. Stanford’s offense is not flashy, but head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard have devised an offensive scheme that allows Stanford to hold the ball while still moving down the field effectively.
Stanford’s ball control offense has masked major deficiencies in its defense. That complementary approach will be even more important on Saturday. UCLA has the second-ranked offense in the Pac-12, but the Bruins are only ninth in time of possession. Chip Kelly plays notoriously fast, and David Shaw plays notoriously slow. In this battle of old Pac-12 rivals, Stanford’s renewed commitment to the run game and ability to sustain long drives could be the difference.
2) Create turnovers
UCLA’s offense has finally hit its stride in Chip Kelly’s third season. The Bruins average 220 yards per game on the ground, good for 15th nationally. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has two 300-yard passing performances in his four starts this season, including last week’s 364-yard outburst in a narrow loss to USC. Running back Demetric Felton is one of the top all-purpose weapons in the Pac-12. If the UCLA offense starts clicking, they could hang 40 on a struggling Stanford defense.
Turnovers are the only hope for the Cardinal defense. Thankfully, UCLA is prone to plenty of giveaways that limit its otherwise explosive offense. UCLA averages two turnovers per game, “good” for 109th in the country. By contrast, Stanford leads the country with an average of just 0.4 turnovers per game. The Cardinal have just two all season! Senior outside linebacker Gabe Reid’s forced fumble on Oregon State QB Chance Nolan, recovered by fifth-year inside linebacker Curtis Robinson, sealed Stanford’s win last week. The Cardinal defense will likely need multiple takeaways to continue the winning streak on Saturday.
3) SPECIAL teams
Special teams dominance has been instrumental in Stanford’s three-game win streak. Two blocked kicks and a muffed punt recovery against Cal. Another blocked kick and a long kickoff return against Washington. A game-winning field goal against Oregon State. Fifth-year kicker Jet Toner has gone seven-for-seven since his 0-4 performance against Oregon, including last week’s 39-yard game winner. Sophomore running back Nathaniel Peat has been one of the top kick returners in the conference, and he seems destined to eventually take one for a touchdown.
UCLA is also solid on special teams, but the 56-yard kick return the Bruins surrendered to Gary Bryant Jr. in the final minute of last Saturday’s 43-38 loss to USC set up the Trojans’ game-winning touchdown. If Stanford can bust a couple of big plays on special teams, it could create a sliver of separation in an otherwise even matchup.
Had Stanford lost to Cal and extended its losing streak to seven games, it might have been a program lowpoint for Shaw. Instead, Thomas Booker blocked Cal’s potential game-tying extra point and Stanford used that momentum to pick up two impressive wins in the Pacific Northwest. The fickle college football pendulum seems to be swinging in Stanford’s direction yet again. With a win on Saturday, the Cardinal would likely enter next season among the Pac-12 favorites. Four wins in a row to close out this strange 2020 season, which has disproportionately affected Stanford football, would certainly indicate that 2019 was a one-year blip buried in years of Cardinal excellence.