Pac-12 Championship Game Preview: UCLA vs. Stanford
STANFORD, Calif. - A bit of college football history will take place Friday evening at the second annual Pac-12 Football Championship Game as North Division winner Stanford will host South Division champ UCLA.
The two teams played just six days earlier down at the Rose Bowl - a Cardinal victory - and the rematch will be the first time ever in college football that two schools have played in a regular season finale and in a conference championship game rematch the next week. Friday also marks the first time the two programs have ever played each other twice in one season.
Not only is a berth to the Rose Bowl on the line for two teams looking to end long droughts from the New Year's Day tradition, but the conference champion will be decided once the clock runs out. The Cardinal have been one of the hottest teams in the country leading up to the game, winning six straight with two losses by just 11 points. The Bruins return to the Championship Game with much more momentum than last year's contest and are looking for their first conference title since the 1998 season.
"It's been a long journey to get here, but it's not over yet," UCLA coach Jim Mora said. "We're excited to compete against a very good Stanford team again (Friday) night in what should be a very exciting game."
[Related FCG Preview: How did we get here?]
Because it was a short week, the Bruins shortened their typical 24-hour rule to midnight as they emotionally got over last Saturday's 35-17 loss to the Cardinal. Both coaches have been bombarded with questions about handling the scheduling quirk of playing back-to-back, but have made it clear that the championship game is a different contest with much higher stakes.
In reviewing film, neither team played particularly well on Saturday, according to their coaches. Each program expects an incredible effort when its players leave the tunnel.
"We've got to execute and try and play better this week than we did last week," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "We prepared like this was a new opponent. We didn't have to scrap our game plan, but at the same time there are things that we didn't do well that we want to do better. There are things we did well that we want to do better also."
One factor both UCLA and Stanford are well aware of is the possibility of inclement weather for the championship game. Widespread thunderstorms moved into the Bay Area late Thursday night and rain or light showers are expected through kick off.
"The field, to my knowledge, has been really good," Shaw said. "It will be covered all day and covered all morning. Our athletic director and our whole team have done a great job making sure the field is in the best possible condition."
"I coached up here in San Francisco so I've played a lot of games in this type of weather," Mora added. "I think it favors the team that executes the best. I don't think it has a whole lot of bearing on what you do schematically or structurally."
With a season of tough, rugged games building up to the Football Championship Game and a Rose Bowl berth on the line, Stanford and UCLA figure to forget about the rain and concentrate on what it takes to win.
Stanford's offense versus UCLA's defense:
Last time out, Stepfan Taylor was the feature back for the Cardinal offense and rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns in less than three quarters of work. The offensive line, featuring All-American and First Team All-Pac-12 guard David Yankey, cleared the way for Taylor and kept quarterback Kevin Hogan upright by allowing only two sacks.
The battle in the trenches will not only be where the game will have the most action, but the area NFL scouts will have their focus on. In addition to the Stanford group, including pass-catching threats and good blocking tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, UCLA boasts a number of talented players along its defensive line. Senior defensive end Datone Jones and junior end Owamagbe Odighizuwa are a pair of tough bookends along with Cassius Marsh and should look to correct a number of mistakes they had in the first matchup. The linebacker corps behind the line are hoping to wrap up better as well, including the Pac-12's leading tackler, Eric Kendricks, and one of the season's biggest surprises in Anthony Barr.
The Bruins will no doubt have to get more penetration against a stout line if they're to slow down a balanced attack that was efficient last week in Pasadena. They've been a solid but not spectacular unit all season long, and it's not hard to see them raising their game as the intensity gets turned up a notch. For Stanford, it's sticking to the game plan: running the ball, making key pass plays to convert on third down and avoiding turnovers.
[Related FCG Preview: Stanford's game plan]
UCLA's offense versus Stanford's defense:
The Cardinal sacked quarterback Brett Hundley seven times last week, which should come as no surprise given Stanford has one of the top front sevens in the country. The unit ranks No. 1 in the NCAA in rush defense, sacks and tackles for loss and harassed UCLA all game long last Saturday, a cause for concern in Westwood by many fans hoping to smell roses after the rematch.
"They've been a pretty resilient group all year," Mora said of his offensive line. "I think when you give up seven sacks everybody wants to point right to the offensive line, but sacks are a function of all 11. I said that this week. Certainly your five offensive linemen have to do their job and protect, but your receivers have to get open and your quarterback has to be decisive in his decision making. We didn't lay it all on the offensive line."
Hundley ran just once last week after taking off just over eight times a game on the season, and he figures to get out of the pocket more often when game time comes around. A productive running game with he and tailback Johnathan Franklin moving the ball between the tackles should open up a passing attack that led to one of the better offensive attacks in the country this season.
"It's going to be tough," Shaw said. "They had a clip where they won five straight and were averaging about 42 points per game. That team didn't go away or disappear last week. We played well but they missed some things. They had some chances that, thankfully, went our way.
"We have to make sure nobody is doing too much and get themselves out of position. Hopefully we can rally to the ball."
Shaw called UCLA tight end and Mackey Award semifinalist Joseph Fauria an "unstoppable force," and it's easy to see why after the senior made an incredible catch for a score the last time out. Penalties were a big reason why the Bruins kept false starting on offense, but it's safe to say if they had cut those down, the first game is a much different story.
"Last week's score is inconsequential," said Shaw. "Now it's our best versus their best. They're going to give us our best game and hopefully we'll give them our best game."
[Related FCG Preview: UCLA's game plan]
As much focus as the rematch angle gets, the bottom line is both Stanford and UCLA are battling for the Pac-12 title. After two great seasons so far and a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line, Friday night's game in the elements should come down to execution.
"What I think is important for our football team is we don't focus on what the results of this game bring," Mora said. "What's important to focus on is this game. I was fortunate to play in a couple of Rose Bowls and they were great experiences. But it's the game to put you in the Rose Bowl that always sticks with you."
Raising the Pac-12 Championship Game trophy and remembering the falling confetti will certainly make for some memories for both the Cardinal and the Bruins. The only thing left to do is kick off.