TWISH: Card claim first Pac-12 crown (2012)

This Week in Stanford History reminds you that Stanford’s run to a Rose Bowl title nearly ended before it began.

Nov. 30, 2012: Stanford 27, UCLA 24

Maybe it occurred as Jonathan Franklin found the end zone on the game’s eighth play from scrimmage, or when UCLA again rendered Stanford’s top receiving and rushing threats invisible.

Whenever it first occurred, you probably spent more than a few plays thinking the Bruins were going to stop Stanford’s Pac-12 championship hopes dead in their soggy tracks on this day three years ago.

Progress on the offensive side of the ball was rarely easy throughout the 2012 season. But by the end of the Pac-12 championship game (aka Larry Bowl II), No. 8 Stanford was the one celebrating amid rain and roses.

“It came down to character,” David Shaw explained at the time.

Moments of high drama amidst long stretches of UCLA control defined this one. The Cardinal totaled just 18 first downs, three fewer than Notre Dame had after its first second-half possession Saturday. Stanford held the lead for barely a third (20:45) of the elapsed action.

The eight-point underdog Bruins gashed the Pac-12’s top defense for 284 yards on the ground, easily more than any Cardinal opponent that season. UCLA owned a 466-325 total yardage edge while keeping both Stepfan Taylor (78 yards on 24 carries) and Zach Ertz (three catches, 19 yards) in check.

So how did the Cardinal victory happen? Why was Kevin Hogan making an awkward postgame interview from a podium at midfield, instead of lamenting his team’s defeat? Why did he earn game MVP honors over Franklin, who looked like the best player on the field?

For starters, UCLA’s mistakes proved extra costly. When they weren’t killing themselves with eight penalties, the Bruins were needlessly burning timeouts in the second half. The game’s only turnover, a Hundley interception, swung momentum just when it appeared UCLA was assuming control.

The Bruins’ first two drives ended in touchdowns, a 51-yard sprint by Franklin to shock the Cardinal on the game’s opening possession and a five-yard run by Hundley to cap a 75-yard drive. They forced Stanford’s first punt before again moving at will as the second period began. Franklin dashed for 31 yards. Hundley hit Joseph Fauria for 17 over the middle. At that point, UCLA held a 14-7 lead alongside 224 yards of total offense (to 86 for Stanford).

But after a false start and a Shayne Skov stuff of Franklin, Ed Reynolds turned a Hundley loft into a game-changing steal. He sprinted and shifted 80 yards the other way and landed mere inches from history. Officials curiously ruled him down at the one (#Pac12RefsAfterDark), denying his bid to tie Deltha O’Neal’s FBS record of four interception returns for touchdowns in a season. The play extended the Card’s streak of consecutive games with at least one takeaway to 23 (the run hit 39 before ending against USC last year).

Stanford had new life. Taylor bulldozed ahead for the tying touchdown. The last of three consecutive UCLA punts landed the Cardinal at its own 17, from where Stanford launched its longest march since the opening minutes.

Hogan ran for big yardage before finding Drew Terrell for 13 yards, and again over the middle for 14. Now a graduate assistant for Michigan, Terrell had a game-high 70 yards receiving on four huge catches (we’ll revisit his biggest grab in a bit). Jordan Williamson kicked a 37-yard field goal as the half ended for the home side’s first lead, 17-14.

Stanford’s punchless third period stood in contrast to UCLA’s production. The visitors tied the score 17-17, helped by Franklin’s 32-yard run to the 25. The Bruins drove to the Cardinal eight when Stanford’s defense held and forced Ka'imi Fairbairn’s 31-yard field goal.

Another four minute-plus drive followed another Cardinal punt. UCLA chewed up 4:30 in marching 80 yards in 12 plays, culminating in a 20-yard run up the middle by Franklin for a 24-17 score with 1:04 remaining in the quarter.

There comes a time in every game where fans fast forward before the outcome gets decided. Their goal is to reach the final stage of grief, even briefly, in attempts to accept defeat. This was now one of those anxious times.

Hogan and Taylor responded by methodically driving from their own 33 to the Bruin 26. After averaging 4.3 yards per play, Stanford now needed 15 yards to convert a third down. Hogan dropped back, held the ball as long as could before getting drilled, and then fired a game-tying laser to Terrell in the end zone with 11:21 remaining.

The equalizer shook the Bruins, whose answer consisted of three plays for one yard. Again it was Terrell coming up big, returning the punt 18 yards to the UCLA 43. A 23-yard jet sweep (where have you gone, Kelsey Young?) set up the new Mr. Reliable, with Jordan Williamson splitting the uprights from 36 yards away with 6:49 left.

After a trade of punts, Stanford had UCLA facing its fate from its own 19 with 2:15 showing. The Cardinal dropped eight into coverage. A first down pass provided a bad omen (a 15-yard roughing the passer call on Trent Murphy), but only briefly. The clock continued to tick down to 1:06 when the Cardinal forced a fourth and seven from the Bruin 44.

Hundley found Fauria for 17 yards. (That Stanford held such a beastly, NFL-ready presence to just two catches remains remarkable.) Three plays moved the ball just five yards closer with 39 ticks remaining. The kicker who stands as the Pac-12’s all-time leading scorer had only made one of four kicks that year beyond 40 yards, and this bridge proved too far. The 52-yard attempt went wide, proving again that scoreboard quality is more important than the quantity of time with control.

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