It was a beating, and then like a bolt of lightning, the Bruins were beaten. UCLA’s courageous, physical, and at times egregious “behind-beating,” to paraphrase Cardinal Coach David Shaw, was nearly complete. The Bruins stood ready to defeat Stanford for the first time in nine games in front of a rabid Bruin throng of 70,833 at the Rose Bowl until suddenly they weren’t standing at all. Stanford took the final rounds with a furious flurry that flattened the Bruins and exasperated their fans into an eerily silent procession into the suddenly dark and unforgiving Pasadena night.
Frequent readers of this space know that I love numbers, and rest assured, numbers are coming. However, the ending of Saturday night’s great escape from the Arroyo-Seco put all the intangibles at the top of any discussion of Stanford’s 22-13 win. Adversity came calling in the form of a significantly more physical, prepared, and passionate Bruin squad than Stanford has seen at any point of David Shaw’s tenure. Stanford took essentially every single one of its allotted seconds of game time to respond, but respond it did.
Stanford lost its starting Cornerbacks, Alijah Holder and Quentin Meeks, as well as its starting Fullback Daniel Marx. The Cardinal lost Receiver Francis Owusu on what started out looking like a huge 3rd Down Conversion but ended with Owusu face down in an unconscious heap when Tahaan Goodman blasted into Owusu’s helmet with his own, forcing a fumble that UCLA recovered and in the process affording the Pac-12 officiating crew a proper platform from which to display their idiocy.
Stanford quarterback Ryan Burns had been terribly vexed all night by a hard charging and well-schemed UCLA defense. Christian McCaffrey had accumulated another strong statistical performance but had not broken the Bruins the way he’d done in last year’s game. Coach Shaw had gone Wildcat crazy, which I am absolutely convinced he does now just to troll the fans. Finally, a punt call on a 4th and 1 from its own 39 sounded to virtually all those watching like a call of surrender.
But not to the Cardinal.
An absolutely vital defensive stop culminated with a punt dropping harmlessly into a fair-catch declaring Christian McCaffrey’s hands, until Marcus Rios stunningly and illegally bumped into McCaffrey. That put the start of Stanford’s final offensive drive at the 30 instead of the 15 and that’s…
….where we will wait and circle back to the Cardinal’s winning drive. First, the game’s other 55:20 warrant our attention, because for better and worse, there was much to learn about where this team truly stands on the heels of its sternest test yet this coming Friday night in Seattle.
Plays Not To Be Forgotten
Alexander Saves The Day: With 2:56 to go in the second quarter, UCLA was driving and arrived at the Stanford 12. Rosen reverse pivoted into a bootleg right and threw a pass that Kenneth Walker III caught in the air and in the end zone. However, thanks to Terrance Alexander, Walker III never landed in the end zone and the pass went for an incompletion. This was a huge part of Stanford keeping the Bruins out of the end zone and settling for III instead of VII.
Hoffpauir/Murphy Get the Ball Back: UCLA had the ball and faced a 3rd and 6 which would have won the game for the Bruins had they converted it. UCLA lines up Strong Left with Double Tight Ends Single Back Right and Twins Right. Alameen Murphy is playing off the far receiver to the right, and Zach Hoffpauir is aligned over the slot receiver eight yards off the line. Murphy, for his part, is six yards off the line. Right before the snap, Hoffpauir signals clearly to Murphy. A communication breakdown here sinks the Cardinal, but both players are on the same page. As expected, the receivers cross, but because of the depth of both defenders, are able to cross seamlessly and stay on their men. Hoffpauir’s man drifts into the right flat as Rosen sprints right. Rosen hits Eldridge Massington three yards short of the sticks, and Hoffpauir closes on him and shoves him out of bounds short of the yard to gain. Without this clean pre-snap read and execution, Burns never gets a chance to drive the Cardinal anywhere.
Reid Saves The Comeback-Everyone knows Montana to Clark in the ‘82 NFC Championship. The Catch. Few mention that Vin Scully, legendary Dodger announcer, called that game for NBC. Even fewer remember that the 49ers nearly yakked up the lead after the catch, when Danny White hit Drew Pearson at midfield with nobody in front of him. Eric Wright, an eternally underrated 49er, reached out and yanks Pearson down from behind, preserving the lead and ultimately the Niners’ trip to Detroit for their first Super Bowl. Fast forward to :10 seconds left on Saturday night: UCLA is already at its own 47. The Bruins go five wide and run all go. Justin Reid, the lone safety back, rushes over at the exact last moment to break up Rosen’s bomb for Kenneth Walker III. This ended up as the penultimate play of the game, but it was arguably even bigger than the sack that ended it.
Overall, the performance of the offensive brain trust matches that of the team. They saved their best for last, but that best will be part of our closing feature. Right here the spotlight goes on three rough playcalling sequences that did the scuffling Cardinal offense no favors.
After Burns hit Irwin for 11 yards and a first down to the UCLA 47, Stanford went for some trickeration with Irwin receiving a shotgun flip from McCaffrey on an apparent end around, then stopping and launching an ill-fated pass for Burns of all people into double coverage. The play resulted in pass interference, but had disaster written all over it. It’s hard to ding the coaches too much on this, as they have enjoyed success with trick pass plays and it’s not like this play detonated a drive (luckily), but it looked ugly and has probably already been dragged and dropped into the iPad Playbook trash can, and rightfully so.
With 12:53 left in the third quarter, Stanford embarked on what started as a crisp, promising drive. Three McCaffrey rushes went for 21 yards and had the Cardinal at its own 41-yard line. Burns then found the ubiquitous Irwin for eight more yards and the reeling Bruins called time out. I don’t know what happened during that time out, but Stanford returned and went Wildcat, Wildcat, McCaffrey dive. The Bruins held up enough to force a 4th and 1, and you know what that meant. I really don’t understand why Stanford went with the Kitty on back to back plays when they were rolling the Bruins so effectively. All knee-jerk reaction aside, the Wildcat, while the bane of many Stanford fans’ weekly game-viewing experience, has been successful with McCaffrey running it and some kind of motion behind it. For me, the timing, the consecutive doses, and the lack of Bryce Love on the field made the Wildcat a neutered kitten that short-circuited a promising drive.
Now, some quick thoughts on the “THE PUNT” choice on Stanford’s penultimate drive. First, I understand the frustration, but nobody should be feigning shock. After five seasons, we know how David Shaw operates, and how he thinks. Even under questioning from his own wife, Coach Shaw sticks to his philosophy. I thought they should have gone for it, but the part that rankles was not the call itself, but the decision to let a conversation “play itself out” in real time with the clock running, then the choice to call time-out. If you are gonna punt it, that’s ok, but casually letting precious seconds run down and losing a time-out was no bueno.
From its own 30, Stanford begins its march with a Trips Bunch Right Single Back Single Left formation. Rector, Schultz, and Irwin form a tight triangle with Irwin the outer base, Schultz the inner base, and Rector at the point. Remember when Stanford’s awful route combinations helped conspire to self-sabotage the 2015 season opener against Northwestern? Those days are long gone. Out of the bunch, Stanford sends Rector on a go route, Schultz out into the flat, and Irwin on an intermediate post corner. This was a brilliantly spaced combination, and the beauty of the post corner is that it’s just about the safest high reward route around. Burns steps, plants, and drops a ball right into Irwin’s hands in between UCLA levels of defense. It’s good for 23, and Stanford’s march is underway.
Following a Burns incompletion, Stanford lines up Twins Left Single Back Strong Right Single Right. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is slot left. Jaleel Wadood, lined up off but over A-W, gets caught looking in the backfield at the snap. A-W shoots up the field and Wadood has to turn his head right just to track J.J., who cuts a step past Wadood, forcing the defensive back to turn 270 degrees to keep up with his man. By the time Wadood gets all the way around, Burns sends a low-flyer that A-W digs out and catches for 14 yards.
After another incompletion out of the same formation, Stanford comes out for a third time in the same formation, something you almost never see. The only difference is that the single receiver on the right is lined up tight to the line. Stanford drags Rector from right to left, sends A-W on a go route, and once more sends Irwin on an intermediate route where he makes a leaping catch of a Burns throw on an out route for 14 yards to the UCLA 19.
The next play is run out of Twins Right with a Shotgun Pro Set and Single WR Left. What’s fascinating about this play is that the Bruins were checkmated pre-snap. Here’s how: UCLA lines up Wadood abides over the slot receiver A-W and Fabian Moreau over the outside receiver. Whether Burns reads it pre-snap or Shaw-Vita-Gren had it called based on how UCLA had been playing we don’t know, but UCLA never had a chance. The problem for the Bruins is that they have assigned deep-short zone responsibilities as opposed to man coverage on the two Cardinal receivers. Moreau just starts booking down the field to cover the deep route, only it’s Wadood’s man A-W in the slot running the go route. This means Wadood, from the slot, has to get over to Trenton Irwin out on the numbers. Irwin stands vacated by the departed Moreau, runs a simple curl eight yards down the field and by the time Wadood gets to him, Burns has hit #2 for the completion.
After McCaffrey picks up a sneaky vital first down, Burns spikes the ball. On second down, the Cardinal comes out in an I-Left formation which forces UCLA to put man coverage and a single safety on the two Cardinal receivers. That means 5’11” Nate Meadors on the 6’3” Arcega-Whiteside. You know the rest. Burns lofts it, A-W snatches it out of the Pasadena sky, and after Reid’s heroics, Alfieri and Solomon Thomas put the bow on it with a game-sealing Party In the Backfield.
So Stanford was exposed as a 3-0 work very much in progress especially on offense. With a quick turnaround in Seattle looming, Stanford is without question at its most vulnerable, especially with Owusu, Marx, Murphy, and Holder all out for the game. With so much to clean up before they invade the Emerald City, it’s anybody’s guess how that game plays out Friday Night. However, one thing’s for sure. If it comes down to Stanford overcoming adversity or the Huskies leaving Burns one last shot, the Cardinal won’t have to dig too far back for proof that Burns and this team can take a beating and still come back with some final, furious Force Lightning that changes an entire game and silences an entire stadium.