If you enjoyed watching the UCLA Bruins and the Stanford Cardinal square off this past Saturday, get ready for a replay this Friday in the Pac-12 Championship game.
With the Cardinal beating the Bruins 35-17 last weekend, both teams will face each other again this Friday at 5:00 p.m. PT in Palo Alto to determine the outright conference champion.
Right from the get go, Stanford set a physical tone that UCLA just wasn't able to match. Running back Stepfan Taylor rumbled for 142 yards and two touchdowns on only 20 carries, and quarterback Kevin Hogan was effective with both his arm and legs—throwing for an efficient 160 yards while also scrambling to evade pressure when needed.
The Cardinal rushed for an impressive 221 yards on the day. Due to the success on the ground, the pass game was opened up via play action. Tight end Zach Ertz was the beneficiary of the strong run game, and most of his effectiveness came on deep crossing routes. Ertz was Stanford's leading receiver with five catches for 71 yards.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Derek Mason devised a great game plan—making life extremely difficult for both UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley and tailback Johnathan Franklin.
Stanford's front seven did a tremendous job of bottling up Franklin—holding him to 65 yards on 21 carries. Hundley faced constant pressure all afternoon and was sacked seven times on the day.
To be frank, the Cardinal dominated up front on both sides of the ball. The old adage in football is that the proverbial game is often decided in the trenches. That notion rang true for this contest.
Who will win on Friday?
What do we make of this game? For one thing, Stanford deserves a ton of credit.
A defensive unit led by Chase Thomas, Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Henry Anderson, Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds had it's way rather easily. UCLA starts three freshmen on its offensive line, and the lack of relative experience and strength when compared to Stanford's defense truly did stand out.
Hundley had no time to execute and throw the ball. The overall physicality of Stanford's defense really upset the rhythm required for UCLA's offense to be successful. Without a consistent run game, it becomes paramount for Hundley to win the game for the Bruins. That's not an easy task for a redshirt freshman to accomplish against a veteran Cardinal group.
In addition, it was clear that the Bruins did not come out in this game with the same fire as they did in the week before against Southern Cal. Of course, that's not exactly a huge surprise for a myriad of reasons.
For one, this game was meaningless to the team from the standpoint that UCLA was to be in the Pac-12 Championship game regardless of the result against Stanford.
Secondly, it's quite possible to surmise that the Bruins expelled a great deal of emotion against their crosstown rival and that there could have been somewhat of an "emotional hangover."
Third, I don't believe that offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone called a great game. I think, not coincidentally, the vanilla and conservative play-calling was directly due to not wanting to show the opponent anything. The Bruins had already punched their ticket to the title game, so there was not really any point in showcasing the offense.
For instance, Hundley rarely, if at all, ran the zone read. The zone read is a staunch principle in Mazzone's offense, and it wasn't seen at all. Stanford was at times daring Hundley to tuck it and run, and truth be told, there were yards to be had on the ground.
Fourth and perhaps most importantly, this is a very young football team. Stanford is a team that relies on tons of upperclassmen, and UCLA relies on a roster primarily made up of freshmen and inexperienced players. From both a maturity and strength standpoint, the Cardinal are superior. It may just be that Stanford is a bad matchup for UCLA in more ways than one.
Fortunately for the Bruins, Jim Mora's bunch gets a shot at redemption this Friday up in Palo Alto.
Expect Mazzone to throw in some wrinkles that the Cardinal weren't privy to this past Saturday, and also expect UCLA to play a much better game. The angle of revenge and atonement is an angle that Mora can use to motivate the squad. In addition, the winner of this game will go to the Rose Bowl. A win for UCLA will also give the team 10 wins for the first time since 2005.
On Friday, there is a 70 percent chance of rain, with a projected 1 3/4" of rain expected to crash down in Palo Alto. With a wet and sloppy field, it could give the Cardinal a big advantage with its ground game.
Regardless, this should be a more competitive affair than it was this past weekend.