While UCLA made adjustments in the Pac-12 title game, Stanford’s will was still too much.
When you play the same opponent two weeks in a row, there is little you can do to surprise them. Generally, the outcome of such a rematch comes down to a few subtle adjustments in the game plan and execution on a few key plays. One week after the Stanford Cardinal beat the UCLA Bruins by 18 points, the Pac-12 Championship Game was decided by just three points and a few key moments.
Coming into the rematch, I felt that if UCLA wanted to make a game of it, they must further commit to establishing the run, avoid a scoring drought, and keep Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan in the pocket. Well, the results were mixed.
There is no question that UCLA got the ground game going early and often this time around. One week after the formidable Cardinal defense held the Bruins to just 73 rushing yards, UCLA gashed its way to 284 yards on the ground. Led by running back Jonathan Franklin, whose 194 rushing yards upped his season total to an impressive 1,700 yards, the Bruins got back to their well-balanced offensive identity after being very one-dimensional in the previous contest. Helping the Bruins’ ground attack was quarterback Brett Hundley, who pitched in 83 yards of his own (even after sack yardage was accounted for). Unfortunately for the Bruins’ offense, the wet conditions in Palo Alto limited their ability to take advantage of a thriving ground game and take shots downfield via the play-action.
Whether it was by design to make the Cardinal defense spread sideline-to-sideline, or whether it was a result of the heavy rain, the UCLA offense took few shots downfield in the passing game. Eighteen of Hundley’s 31 passes were thrown behind the line of scrimmage via swing pass, quick hitch, or bubble screen. While the short passes proved mildly effective, serving as an extension of the running game, the lack of vertical passes hindered the offense when Franklin was not able to bust long runs and set up easy scores.
While UCLA didn’t experience the same type of scoring drought as it had in the previous contest, all of the Bruins' scoring occurred in the first and third quarters. It was as if the Bruins had strong offensive game plans coming out of the gate and out of the halftime break but were unable to counter the defensive adjustments made in-game by the Cardinal. Leading 24-17 heading into the fourth quarter, the Bruins were unable to put additional points on the board and eventually fell, 27-24.
One strong defensive adjustment the Bruins made from the previous week was in handling Stanford’s bootleg package. A week after Hogan went 4-for-4 for 52 yards and three first downs on play-action, bootleg passes, UCLA made sure any bootleg passes were stopped for minimal gain. What UCLA failed to account for, though, was how effective Hogan would be running the Read Zone. Hogan kept the ball five times on Read Zone plays for gains of 13, six, 12, 12, and 11, an average of 10.8 yards per carry. One week after hurting UCLA with his arm while on the run, Hogan miffed the Bruins with his vastly underrated running abilities.
Despite only mixed results of the aforementioned keys to the game, the Bruins still had a great chance to win. The game’s turning point came with 11.5 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Owning momentum and a 24-17 lead, UCLA forced Stanford into a 3rd-and-15 situation at the Bruins’ 26-yard line. At the very worst, the UCLA defense should have kept the Stanford receivers in front, allowing just a moderate gain. Such strategy would have left Stanford with a field goal attempt and, at worst, a 24-20 lead. Unfortunately, the UCLA secondary allowed Stanford receiver Drew Terrell to get behind them and catch a way-too-easy 26-yard score. At that point, UCLA gave up the lead, the momentum, and its best shot to play in the Rose Bowl.
It should be noted that Stanford rightfully earned everything it achieved this season. The Cardinal clawed, pounded, and willed their way to an appearance in the Rose Bowl. Stanford simply owned the state of California again, and their win at Eugene was one of the gutsiest victories the Pac-12 has seen in quite some time. With their looming New Year’s Day contest against the Wisconsin Badgers, we can expect about 80 combined runs, 30 combined passes, and a very quick game.
Regardless of the entertainment value of such contest, the Stanford program proved this season it is much more than a flash-in-the-pan program feeding off of a once-in-a-generation talent (Andrew Luck). Instead, this is a team with a clear identity, one that rarely tries to do more than it is capable of doing and has become a perennial Top 10 program. Let’s just hope the Cardinal don’t lose their second coach to the NFL in the past three seasons.