But two games against a resurgent UCLA program still stood between Stanford and the elusive Pac-12 championship trophy. The Bruins held their ground after encounter number one, refusing to budge after Stanford slapped them silly last week at the Rose Bowl, 35-17. As it turns out, Jim Mora's boys were only digging in back then, fortifying themselves to unleash hell in the Northern California rain six days later.
Nothing Comes Easy - But It Comes Nonetheless
Sure, Stanford had slain the Oregon titan, but this title wouldn't follow the model of Steve Young's 1995 Super Bowl cakewalk -- an easy coronation after he finally overcame the Dallas Cowboys hump in the NFC Championship Game. From the opening drive, it was evident that UCLA had come for their money's worth. The Bruins were intent on blocking Stanford's march toward the Rose Bowl's gridiron grandeur more arduously than any previous opponent in the Cardinal's magical November resurgence.
But the Farm Boys would not be denied their key back to UCLA's home fortress in Pasadena. Bruins' stud Johnathan Franklin gashed their nation-best rushing defense for 194 yards on the ground -- all to no avail. Freshman Brett Hundley unleashed the dual-threat sensation that had crippled so many Stanford defenses of the past, but that still wasn't enough for the Baby Blue. UCLA outgained Stanford by over 100 yards, racked up nearly 10 yards per non-quarterback carry, and controlled the game entering the fourth quarter. But when all was said and done, no amount of opposing success could phase David Shaw's squad. The group had winning embedded in its DNA several weeks ahead of time.
This was, after all, the same ball club that had waltzed into Eugene and secured victory against this generation's most feared offense, despite being held scoreless for 10 straight possessions. It was also the same team that had somehow, someway found a way to win against a well-oiled Oregon State machine despite turning the ball over four times.
With 2012 Stanford football, it's safe to throw statistics and historical trends out the window. Focus on those grind-out wins instead, the ones that started coming without fail after a chilly Colorado afternoon one month ago, when Kevin Hogan assumed the Cardinal quarterback position. At that moment, the club made the leap from the state of solid to the territory of legendary. Following Friday's 27-24 triumph over UCLA, Stanford is headed back to the Rose Bowl, a rare destination foreign even to the likes of Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck.
It was quickly clear that UCLA wasn't messing around. Over the six-day hiatus, the Bruins morphed into a precision-driven machine, one that resembled the Oregon teams that caused Stanford massive headaches before this season. Derek Mason's Cardinal defense, meanwhile, came out overaggressive, looking for a quick kill with borderline suicide blitzes that included Terrence Brown's failed cornerback attack.
This aggression played right into UCLA's gameplan, which emphasized quick swing passes to neutralize Stanford pressure and lure the defense out of position against Franklin's zone-blocked gashes up the middle. A 51-yard sprint highlighted a startling eight-play, 85-yard touchdown drive to open the scoring.
But Hogan answered with steady composure. His 11-play, 69-yard rebuttal featured a picture-perfect third down read keeper that went for 13 yards and an excellent 33-yard check-down completion to Stepfan Taylor. The score was knotted at a touchdown apiece. The Bruins' offense, though, maintained its torrid pace, with Hundley running in another score from five yards out by the end of the first quarter.
Then came Stanford's emblematic play, the electrifying burst that encapsulated the team's November knack for victory. With UCLA up 14-7, dominating statistically, and inside Cardinal territory, threatening to build a two-possession lead, the Farm Boys finally caught a break. Ricky Marvray's false start, one of seven costly Bruin penalties, forced the visitors into their first uncomfortable down-and-distance situation. On 2nd-and-16, the front seven finally smelled blood, and, at long last, Ed Reynolds again saw daylight.
He intercepted Hundley's pressured pass (and the momentum) along the far sideline. He took his early Christmas present on a wild ride to the end zone. Reynolds knifed through perplexed tacklers, broke toward the middle of field and streaked to glory with the defining play of the Cardinal's season. The officials robbed Reynolds of his NCAA-record fourth pick-six by incorrectly ruling him down shy of the end zone, but count it as an 81-yard touchdown in The Bootleg's book -- a spectacular effort that also tied the NCAA single-season record for interception return yards at 302 (except it technically didn't, because the officials butchered the call a yard short).
Cal's Deltha O'Neal, who owns the threatened pick-six record, immediately gloated about his good fortune on Twitter -- just as Stepfan Taylor punched in the equalizing touchdown.
"Yeah, they got me," was Reynolds' light-hearted, smiling postgame criticism. "But oh well."
No. 29's right: on a championship team featuring so many different heroes, an individual record is indeed irrelevant. Touchdown or not, his interception return put Stanford in position to win a title. The Farm Boys were again afloat, still in the mix even after falling behind 24-17 on another Franklin touchdown run.
In a see-saw battle of runs, it would take one more leap in Hogan's maturation for Stanford to secure the last laugh. Like both Oregon schools, the Bruins had found a way to stall No. 8 after a hot start. Stanford drives were sputtering in the face of a disciplined defensive scheme, one that capitalized on predictable play-calling and would drop as many as eight men into coverage on passing downs.
To win the biggest game of his young career, Hogan the athlete would have to become Hogan the passer. He'd have to find a way to dissect what had been impenetrable Bruins' zone coverage downfield, and he'd have to do it against the long odds of 3rd-and-15. Drew Terrell, the zone buster of four critical catches for 70 yards, stepped up to the challenge on Pep Hamilton's aggressive four verticals play-call.
When the Bruins brought safety help to the middle of the field to assist with Zach Ertz, the streaking Terrell bolted for the vacated back corner of the end zone. In a defining moment of quarterback development, Hogan made the correct read, lofting a brilliant throw over coverage into No. 4's waiting breadbasket. Terrell, whose subsequent 18-yard punt return set up Williamson's winning field goal, became one of the game's many heroes. All tied up.
Defense Secures Championship
Stanford's defense would not squander second life. UCLA outgained the Cardinal 461-325 on the game, but the bulk of that production came before Mason's adjustments kicked in. When push truly came to shove, Usua Amanam's speed was used to curtail the Bruins' sideline swing pass game, while Jordan Richards crept up to take away dangerous tight end Joe Fauria (one catch, 17 yards) and the rest of the Baby Blue's quick strike attack. That allowed the Cardinal to stay at home against Franklin while daring Hundley to beat them over the top. On a wet day, the freshman wasn't able to do that, and UCLA came up empty in the fourth quarter after slicing like a hot knife through butter during the previous three.
Offense wins games; defense wins championships. Modify that for this contest: offense kept Stanford in the game, until the defense figured it out and sealed the Pac-12 Championship.
Of course, there was an element of poetic justice in this one, too: Williamson's two solid field goals provided the difference, while Stanford actually clinched the title on Mora's curious decision to kick, as UCLA missed a 52-yard try in wet conditions.
The end 27-24 result was a sum of dozens of distinct efforts, a fitting conclusion to an 11-2 team's spectacular season of growth, development, and improvement.
It's time to party like it's 1999.
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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