Grading the Keys: Championship Game

Nothing came easily for this 2012 Stanford football team during its Pac-12 championship run. Fortunately, David Shaw's crew played its best football when faced with desperate times, winning seven straight games to smell Roses.

The most difficult of these death-defying accomplishments, at least statistically, was the final 27-24 victory against UCLA. The Bruins 461-325 advantage in the yardage category represented the worst beating the Farm Boys had taken all year. The Baby Blue's 284 rushing yards were also far and away the most Stanford's stout ground control unit had surrendered. Ed Reynolds, though, played a major factor in ensuring that those numbers would not hold up: his 80-yard interception return was the Cardinal's saving grace.

Here's how the team fared elsewhere:

Keep Hundley in the Pocket
Stanford did a phenomenal job restricting mobile quarterback Brett Hundley at the Rose Bowl a week prior, sacking him seven times and eliminating all 38 of his positive rushing yards. But Jim Mora added some spice to the playbook this time around, spreading the Cardinal thin with quick swing passes and keeping them honest with Johnathan Franklin's resulting gashing ground game.

This translated to plenty of open territory for Hundley to leave his mark. He rushed for 83 yards on 16 carries, an output highlighted by a 48-yard dash along the left side of the field and a five-yard touchdown scamper that easily beat Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy to the edge. Stanford, which leads the nation with 56 sacks, recorded only three for 11 lost yards this time, a far cry from the prior week's 38-yard devastation.

Grade: C- (Stanford felt Terrence Stephens' absence this time, but after Derek Mason made the adjustments detailed below, the defense was successful enough to force Mora into an ill-advised 52-yard field goal attempt with the game on the line)

Clean Football
Stanford had defeated both Oregon schools despite losing the overall turnover battle 7-2. The Farm Boys were living dangerously in regards to that number, and they fixed it just in time for the Pac-12 Championship Game. For the first time all season, the Cardinal were statistically dominated. Aside from needing to avoid turnovers, Stanford needed to find a way to force them to make up for yardage deficiencies.

Count on Reynolds to provide the game-changer. With UCLA driving toward a possible 21-7 lead in the second quarter, he intercepted Hundley's second-and-long pass and returned it 80 yards to set up the equalizing touchdown on Stanford's most electrifying play of the season. That one swing would be all the Cardinal needed to stay in this championship game. They held onto the football the rest of the way, relying on the steady presence of punt returner Drew Terrell in wet conditions.

Punter Ben Rhyne and kicker Jordan Williamson also contributed to a clean football effort in less-than-ideal condition. Williamson, in fact, provided the difference with his two solid field goal makes.

Grade: A+ (This success made up for Stanford's other struggles, a role reversal from the previous games in its magical November run)

Keep Fauria in Check Again
Stud UCLA tight end Joseph Fauria caught only one pass for 17 yards. Credit A.J. Tarpley, the conference's best at his position in pass coverage. It was wholly necessary, considering that the Cardinal were cheating strong safety Jordan Richards up to counteract Franklin's 194-yard ground effort for much of the game. Had Tarpley and his teammates not done another stellar job against Fauria, there would have been trouble over the top.

Grade: A+ (Stanford did an excellent job against a bevy of elite tight ends this season, with the only blemish on its record coming on a single touchdown allowed to Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert. That one did hurt, though.)

Repeat Physical Dominance
Well, it's impossible to say that Stanford dominated UCLA physically this time around, considering the Bruins' running backs averaged 10 yards per carry while Stepfan Taylor labored his way to only 78 on 24 carries. The Cardinal's physical advantage of a week prior eroded after the Bruins successfully stretched the defense out horizontally. This deficiency was only partially overcome when Richards cheated up to reinforce the drawn-out front seven.

Indeed Stanford's usual muscle advantage was never fully realized. The Bruins were not denied offensive victory in this one until Mora did the job himself, sending his kicker out in wet conditions to attempt a do-or-die 52-yard field goal for the tie. It was fourth and three at the time, and one has to wonder what would have happened had UCLA's clicking offense instead went for it in that situation. Along those lines, the Cardinal might have been fortunate to have a three-point lead instead of a four-point one: the smaller advantage goaded Mora into an illogically conservative decision.

Regardless, the missed field goal saved Stanford's day. Come the Rose Bowl, the Farm Boys' vaunted defense will have a chance to prove Friday's effort was merely a hiccup.

Grade: C- (One comes to expect more out of this defense, but playing a team two weeks in a row is never easy. UCLA used the first matchup to lull Stanford to sleep, but Stanford will have to hope that Wisconsin's swing-passing game is not nearly as effective as the Bruins' version.)

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 Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.

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