No one would have guessed at the start of the college football season that the Pac-12 championship would be a contest between the Stanford Cardinal and the UCLA Bruins, but 14 weeks have passed and that is exactly where we stand.
The game is a rematch of the teams' final regular-season game last week, which the Cardinal won easily 35-17. However, this time the Bruins are playing for keeps.
Last week the Bruins' game plan seemed so vanilla that L.A. Times columnist T.J. Simers questioned whether UCLA head coach Jim Mora had thrown the game intentionally to avoid facing the high-powered Oregon offense for a chance to play in the Rose Bowl.
"I've never, in my life, stepped on the field to compete and not given my best. Nor will I ever," Mora said (via Yahoo! Sports).
Friday the Bruins will be holding nothing back, and Stanford should expect a much better effort from Mora’s squad.
Last week, UCLA senior running back Johnathan Franklin never got going. His 65 yards on 21 carries was his second-lowest total of the season and only the fourth time the explosive back had been held under 100 yards.
Freshman sensation quarterback Brett Hundley looked rattled against the Stanford pass rush, but the second time around the young quarterback should feel much more comfortable in the pocket.
The deep game should be open for Hundley—his first-quarter performance last week is a testament to that. Hundley threw for 147 yards in the first quarter alone, including a 71-yard bomb to wideout Shaq Evans. However, the Bruins’ game plan moved away from the deep game as play progressed.
While the UCLA offense may find success with an expanded playbook, the Bruins defense will have their hands full trying to contain Stanford's all-time leading rusher, Stepfan Taylor. Taylor exploded for 142 yards and two touchdowns last week. UCLA knew Taylor was coming and still could not stop him. Expect the Cardinal to feed Taylor the ball at least 20 times in the title game.
UCLA needs to tackle well and make Stanford beat them through the air.
Stanford head coach David Shaw made a late-season quarterback change to mobile freshman Kevin Hogan, and it seems to have sparked the offense. The introduction of Hogan also adds another dimension to the position, making it that much harder for oppositions to prepare (just as Colin Kaepernick's introduction as starting QB for the 49ers has done for former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh).
Stanford has won eight straight home games, and 19 of its past 20. UCLA pulling off a win would be a monumental upset.
The Bruins' huge turnaround after a 6-8 season has been inspirational, but UCLA does not have as much talent as the veteran-laden Stanford squad.
However, it is extremely hard to beat the same team twice—especially in consecutive weeks. With rainy conditions projected for Friday’s matchup, and a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line, anything can happen.