Stanford blocks out everything to secure win at UCLA
PASADENA, Calif. -- There were three scenarios for Stanford and the program's Pac-12 title hopes coming into Saturday. For the Cardinal players and coaches, there was only one.
The program many thought would slip to the middle of the pack with the departure of quarterback Andrew Luck delivered an emphatic 35-17 statement at the Rose Bowl against UCLA to capture the North Division title and setup a rematch six days later. The Cardinal will host the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game Friday night at 5 p.m. PT. The winner will play in the Rose Bowl on January 1.
[Related: Contact the Stanford ticket office for Pac-12 Football Championship Game tickets]
"This is the way we were going to play this year -- physical defense that is tough to run on; hopefully an opportunistic secondary; big, physical offensive line; great tight ends; a great running back and grooming another quarterback," coach David Shaw said.
Though it was possible Stanford could have backed into the championship game, that idea flew out the window with a win by Oregon over Oregon State earlier in the day. To a man however, not one player or coach said they were particularly concerned with what was happening outside of Pasadena and were wholly focused on the task at hand.
In capturing their fourth straight win in the series, Stanford's defense shutdown another high-powered offensive attack that ranked near the top of the conference and recorded seven sacks on the night. While UCLA had already secured a berth in the championship game a week ago with their South Division title, Brett Hundley and company certainly made it a game -- for a half. Turnovers, including a kick-return fumble that was returned for a touchdown in the 3rd quarter, pushed the game out of reach late.
"We are competitors and those guys in there don't spend all that time preparing for a game, with the sacrifices they make, to not do their best every opportunity they get," Bruins coach Jim Mora said. "They tried their best to win, it didn't matter. We wanted to win this game today but we came up short."
Now both teams have the task of preparing to play each other once again on a short week. The unique scenario will force a quick reexamination of Saturday's game tape.
"It's really hard to beat a team twice, particularly in back-to-back weeks. You have to fight complacency and they'll come back with a chip on their shoulders to be back stronger, faster and better," Shaw said. "Once you play a game after a game, you always think about things you could have done or not.
"These guys are going to come up to Stanford, California and they're going to give us their best shot. We're going to be ready for them. That's my job over the next six days.
[Related video: Stanford coach David Shaw's postgame interview]
It was another balanced, clock-controlling offensive attack for Stanford, which averaged 4.5 yards per rush and saw star tailback Stepfan Taylor rack up 142 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. The Cardinal's late-season resurgence is explained by the play of quarterback Kevin Hogan, who was 15-for-21 against UCLA and played generally mistake-free all night.
"He's opening up the offense," Taylor said of his quarterback. "He's making us more balanced. They had to respect him, both his mobility and his arm. That's helping because they can't just stack everybody in the box."
No matter how hard they pushed the Bruins kept coming up short, whether it was a missed tackle on defense or a missed assignment along on the offensive line. UCLA penalties -- 12 of them for 135 yards -- gave the Cardinal new life on offense on a number of drives. The Bruins saw several big plays called back just when it seemed like Hundley and company were getting going.
"Too many penalties. Some were aggressive some were a lack of focus, some were not being technically sound," Mora said. "Yes it's disappointing but we have got to get over it quickly because we have a game on Friday night."
A win in Friday's Pac-12 Championship game sends either program back to the Rose Bowl. Even optimistic fans probably thought that would be a stretch in the preseason but here they are, the Bruins and the Cardinal battling one more time for conference crown.
"It's special; it's the goal," Taylor said. "We want to get there but you have to realize what got you there in the process. You have to focus on the now and taking it one step at a time."
One Stanford player wanted the team to savor the moment and understand what it meant to get to this point as the team celebrated with their fans Saturday night. Right guard Kevin Danser looked around the Rose Bowl and had one but one message that he delivered loudly and proudly.
"We're coming back here boys," he said. "We're coming back here on January 1st."
All that's left to do is win. Again.