Although this week’s venue will be different, the obstacle and goal remain the same. The Cardinal will host those same Bruins on Friday, this time at Stanford Stadium with the Pac-12 Championship on the line. Not that the implications of Saturday’s battle were any less — a loss would have knocked Stanford out of contention and the Oregon Ducks would have been hosting the championship game — but the entire 2012 season has been whittled down to this week’s rematch: a win will earn the Cardinal their first Rose Bowl berth since 2000.
Stanford has certainly embarked on an impressive second half run. Since their questionable overtime loss in South Bend, the Cardinal have rattled off six straight wins, including three straight against ranked opponents. While their overtime victory in Eugene understandably garnered the most national attention, Stanford quietly rose to the occasion yet again on Saturday.
UCLA may have had home field advantage, but the Bruins and their raucous crowd were little match for a very complete Stanford team that had all their strengths on display. They handled the Bruins pretty much the same way that Stanford has won all season long, with a big day from Stepfan Taylor and an efficient performance from Kevin Hogan. Hogan was 15-for-22 for only 160 yards and a touchdown, but his chemistry with tight end Zach Ertz continued to blossom as the duo connected five times for 71 yards. Ertz is a finalist for the John Mackey award, the NCAA’s honor for outstanding tight ends, and he’s also in line for a big paycheck come NFL draft day.
Defensively, the Cardinal did what they do best. They surrendered 17 points to the Bruins, a team that averaged 37.7 points per game coming in. Star running back Johnathan Franklin rushed for only 65 yards; he did score a touchdown, but it came with less than two minutes in the fourth quarter when the Cardinal already had a comfortable 25-point lead.
Can the Bruins adjust?
— UCLA will need to make major changes to their rushing offense, and they might benefit from doing more to attack the middle of Stanford’s defensive line. Nose tackle Terrence Stephens was absent from Saturday’s game for personal reasons and his status is unknown for Friday’s game as well. Shaw gave up very little about the senior in his meeting with reporters yesterday, but more on his status is supposed to be announced today.
— Cardinal punter Daniel Zychlinski appears to be doubtful, so field position might be a point of emphasis. Backup Ben Ryhne averaged just under 40 yards a punt in relief, a meager output considering how important punting has been for Stanford’s emphasis on field position. Zychlinski was integral in the Cardinal’s win over Oregon — his 45.7 yard average left the Ducks with long fields on every possession change, and he earned Pac-12 special teams player of the week for his effort.
— A focus for the Bruins should be taking away Stanford’s tight ends and fullback Ryan Hewitt, who have emerged as Hogan’s favorite targets. Not that UCLA didn’t key on Stanford’s big targets, but they certainly weren’t effective in stopping them. Ertz and Hewitt combined for half of Hogan’s completions, with Taylor, Jamal-Rashad Patterson and Terrell picking up the leftover slack.
— Tight end Levine Toilolo has become a non-factor statistically, although it’s hard to quantify how much his presence on the field allows his counterparts freedom to run. After going off to the tune of five catches, 141 yards and a touchdown against Arizona, Toilolo has caught only 10 passes for 109 yards and two scores in seven games since. He has been held to one catch or fewer in four of those games.
— UCLA will have to stop a large stable of fresh-legged running backs. Stanford’s win featured six different ball carriers, including a heavy dose of Anthony Wilkerson, who took over for Taylor with plenty of game left. Taylor, already the leading rusher in Cardinal history, may have two more games to leave an even bigger impact on Stanford’s record books.