No. 13 Stanford's 24-10 slugfest defeat of No. 9 UCLA may not concern second-ranked Oregon, which faces both teams in pursuit of its fourth Pac-12 Conference championship in five seasons.
Stanford knows about dirtying and bloodying its way to a league championship. Doing so for a second straight season is a tall order, even if knocking off the Bruins was a step in the right direction.
"Pile of dust, a lot of blood," is how Stanford senior running back Tyler Gaffney described his team's win during his ABC postgame interview.
It was a victory the Cardinal had to have to keep their conference and BCS Championship hopes alive, and it was anything but pretty.
The Cardinal offense still hasn't found consistency. While the defense held UCLA scoreless for the first half, Stanford managed just three points before intermission.
A second potential scoring drive ended in a red-zone interception.
When Stanford finally crossed the goal line, it did so when wide receiver Kodi Whitfield made what is arguably the catch of the season.
"Kodi made one heck of a play," head coach David Shaw said in his postgame press conference, per GoStanford.com.
And how. Yet the big play has been Stanford's scoreboard salvation in recent weeks. Whether it's Whitfield's highlight-reel catch or Ty Montgomery's explosive returns in special teams, it’s typically feast or famine for the Cardinal.
Stanford's second touchdown came after another big play, when quarterback Kevin Hogan hit Devon Cajuste on a 34-yard pass, which set up Gaffney for a one-yard touchdown rush.
Giving up the big play was the Bruin defense's undoing this week, and next week it sees an offense that produces more big plays than any team in the nation.
The Bruins' susceptibility to long plays suited Stanford just fine against UCLA. Saturday’s win was reminiscent of the Cardinal’s win at Autzen Stadium last November, which proved to be the decisive outcome for the Pac-12 North title.
Stanford dictated the tempo, playing its best defensive game of the season. After giving up over 400 yards to Washington and Utah in the previous two weeks, the Cardinal limited UCLA to just 266.
“Bring the lessons learned,” Shaw said he told his team.
Those are lessons the Cardinal must continue to build from if they’re to challenge the Oregon juggernaut in the Pac-12 North. Utah exposed a weakness in the Stanford defense by spreading the field sideline-to-sideline with quick screen passes, designed to allow playmakers to operate in space.
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“I have to give a lot of credit to [defensive coordinator Derek] Mason, knowing we had to contain these guys, partially based on what happened in Utah: Those swing passes,” Shaw said. “Giving up seven, eight yards an attempt.”
UCLA was unable to attack that way—the Bruins really couldn’t mount much of any attack. That's the lifeblood of Oregon's offensive game plan.
The sound of footsteps had UCLA sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley playing with jitters throughout the afternoon. His pocket routinely collapsed, and an indecisive Hundley was rattled.
The Bruin signal-caller has not seen the last of such swarming defenses. Next week at Oregon, he'll draw similar pressure from Ducks DeForest Buckner, Boseko Lokombo and Tony Washington.
Hundley has proven to be a capable ball-carrier in the past, but he is hardly the prototypical rushing quarterback. He looked uncomfortable scrambling with Stanford's pursuers Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro.
Stanford renewed its "party in the backfield" with an inexperienced Bruin offensive line lifting the velvet rope.
That, in turn, forced Hundley into numerous throws on the run. Stanford safety Jordan Richards took advantage of two of Hundley’s wobbly tosses with interceptions.
When Stanford sees Oregon Nov. 7, it’s facing a much different kind of dual-threat quarterback. Ducks sophomore Marcus Mariota is far more comfortable escaping the pocket and running—in fact, he thrives on it.
Because he's more comfortable running, Mariota is also more adept at throwing on the run. Turning badly thrown balls into takeaways hasn't exactly been an option for opposing defenses against Mariota, given the sophomore has yet to throw one this season.
Stanford knows that the blueprint for beating Oregon is slowing down. The Cardinal's ability to do just that against UCLA Saturday is promising—but the Ducks aren't UCLA.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer for B/R. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.