Both offenses have the upper hand early. Leading into this contest, much discussion centered upon whether UCLA had been saving up new looks for the Pac-12 Championship Game they elected not to show last Saturday in Pasadena. To their credit, the Bruins do appear to start the game an ace up their sleeve, albeit a card straight out of every opposing OC's playbook for the last 10 seasons.
The book on Stanford has been that the Cardinal are a step too slow defensively, and thus susceptible in space. UCLA therefore spread it out early with an array of flares that got tailback Jonathan Franklin to the outside with the ball. After the play calling, slipping and sloppy tackling advanced the Bruins to midfield, they rewound the clock a few decades, giving to Franklin on a more traditional handoff up the middle. He burst through a front seven adjusting to the lateral threat, and had a 51-yard touchdown upheld on review.
Then it was Stanford's turn. The Cardinal started in their traditional manner, pounding it up the middle with tailback Stepfan Taylor before turning to fullback Ryan Hewitt to convert on a fourth and short inside UCLA territory. Then the Cardinal mimicked UCLA's approach, pulling out a few wrinkles of their own that afforded their playmakers space on the perimeter.
First came a screen to Taylor, who rumbled for 32 yards down the left sideline. To Kevin Hogan's credit, Taylor appeared to be the young quarterback's last option on a play-action play that saw the Bruins successfully cover all of Stanford's downfield threats. The very next snap, from UCLA's two, Hogan faked to Taylor running right before reversing field and scoring on a naked bootleg.
On a field soaked from days of rain, changes of direction and counter plays in particular appear to be favoring the offense. On their second possession, UCLA exploited that trend to their advantage, much as each team had in its first possession. Brett Hundley went for 44 between the tackles as Shanye Skov fell for a lateral fake that let Xavier Su'a-Filo (a former Stanford OL recruit) seal Skov to the outside. The next play, Chase Thomas, Stanford's other linebacker who receives All-American hype, can't corral Franklin, who goes for 19 down to the Cardinal five. Hundley gained the remaining five yards with his legs, putting UCLA up 14-7 as the first quarter wound down.
Play of the quarter: The zone read is, to this author's eyes, the most elegant of plays in modern college football. The quarterback reads the backside defensive end. If he stays wide, the quarterback hands it off to the tailback as per usual. The wrinkle, however, comes if the defensive end chases too hard after the running back. Then, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs upfield in the space the defensive end has vacated. Kevin Hogan, Stepfan Taylor and, of course, the Cardinal offensive line, ran the play to perfection on a third down in the first period. UCLA sold out to stop Stanford's soon-to-be all-time leading rusher. This longtime observer cannot recall seeing the Cardinal ever run a zone read play,
Stat of the quarter: UCLA has run for 127 yards through 15 minutes. That's on pace for 508 rushing yards.
Halftime: Stanford 17, UCLA 14
After resting for the game's first 15, the defenses had their way in the second quarter, with the period's only touchdown coming thanks to the oft forgotten side of the ball. UCLA continued to use misdirection to great effect as the period began, marching to the Cardinal 35 and looking to build on a 14-7 lead. But then Brett Hundley underthrew a sideline route, much to the benefit of Ed Reynolds and the Cardinal. Reynolds intercepted Hundley at the Card's 19, advanced to the Bruin one-yard line, and Taylor punched it the next play in on a dive right.
Then the game settled into a quieter period as the defenses took over in earnest. The teams traded five consecutive punts, with both teams, but especially UCLA, slipping repeatedly on the wet field. Still, the Bruins did enough early such that they have 266 yards to Stanford's 189 at the half, with Hundley and Hogan a combined 23-of-29. Stanford does have an edge with 16:20 of first-half possession and enjoys a +1 turnover margin thanks to Hundley's underthrow. Most importantly, the Cardinal have a three-point halftime lead after Hogan ran the zone read two additional times for 12 yards a pop and Drew Terrell had a 13- and a 14-yard reception. Those big plays led the Cardinal to the UCLA 21 with two seconds left in the half, allowing Jordan Williamson to prove true on a 37-yarder as the half expired.
Play of the quarter: Give him the record! California's Deltha O'Neal holds the NCAA record with four interceptions returned for touchdowns in a single season. Currently with three pick-sixes, Ed Reynolds came within perhaps a foot of his fourth early in the second quarter. The ball-hawking Floridian closed quickly from the center of the field to intercept Hundley on the right sideline at the Cardinal 19. His athletic display just began, however, as Reynolds kept his footing, turned upfield and started weaving through surprised Bruin defenders. Working gradually from his left to his right, Reynolds got past the entire UCLA team and had a clear path to the end zone, but was tackled from behind right by the goal line. Reynolds dove and appeared to clear the plane of the end zone before his knees touched dirt, but the officials ruled Reynolds down in play, and upheld the call upon review. No matter, as Taylor dove in on the next play to knot the contest at 14-all.
Stat of the quarter: 2005… and 1999. In 2005, Walt Harris and the Cardinal led UCLA 24-3 with eight minutes left at the old Stanford Stadium. But UCLA came back to win in overtime as the Cardinal would finish 5-6, missing out on a bowl bid because of that collapse against the Bruins. This year, the stakes are far higher for UCLA's visit to Stanford Stadium, but the bottom line is the same. Stanford simply needs to find a way to get another program-changing win, this time for their first Rose Bowl bid since 1999.
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