Again, Stanford's offense started slowly. Again, however, Stanford's defense shone brighter yet in the clutch, forcing three second-half fumbles to lead the Cardinal to a come-from-behind 22-16 victory over host UCLA.
Cornerback Michael Thomas forced two of those fumbles, setting the stage for sophomore tailback Stepfan Taylor to punch in the game-winning score on a six-yard draw with 2:33 to play. UCLA (0-2, 0-1 Pac-10) reached the Cardinal 31 on the ensuing possession, but, with 53 seconds to go, Stanford cornerback Johnson Bademosi stripped UCLA receiver Taylor Embree and lineman Chase Thomas recovered, snuffing out the Bruins' last-gasp effort.
"The Pac-10 standings look great, don't they?" said Thomas, whose Cardinal (2-0, 1-0 Pac-10) now sit alone in first place after winning the only conference game thus far this season. "Our schedule and our league are just too hard – we just couldn't lose today and still think we can win the Pac-10. We had to find a way to win, and we did."
It is Thomas who is as responsible as anyone for Stanford's unblemished mark and unblemished preseason dream of returning here to the Rose Bowl in four months' time. Blitzing frequently, he forced fumbles on each of his two sacks of quarterback Kevin Prince, and recorded 15 tackles to lead the Cardinal from a 13-0 halftime deficit to thrilling victory. The Pac-10 named him Player of the Week for his efforts, but Thomas cared more about the win.
"I'm a senior, so I've seen the good and the bad," he said. "This year means too much for me to let us lose, so I had to lead by example today. I love bringing the pressure, and my teammates made the most of it."
Indeed, the game turned in the early third quarter, when a Thomas sack and strip pried lose the football on the Stanford 27. Linebacker Chike Amajoyi didn't break stride in scooping the ball and returning it for a score to cut UCLA's lead to 13-7 with 9:33 left in the third, keeping the Cardinal in striking distance.
"Last year, the offense bailed us out a few times, so it was really sweet today to help out the O," Amajoyi said. "With these new coaches, we're back to bringing it the way we were under our old DC, Coach Shafer. We're coming out swinging. We might get punched in the mouth, but we're going to keep on swinging."
Sure enough, UCLA lit up the Stanford defense with 22-of-28 passing for 367 yards, but the Cardinal D was equally opportunistic. Besides Amajoyi's touchdown return and the three forced fumbles, Stanford also forced four sacks, harried the Bruins into no first-down conversions on eight third downs, and held UCLA out of the end zone the entire second half. Embree's 54-yard streak down the left sideline gave the Bruins a 10-0 lead with 5:15 left in the second quarter, but the play marked the only UCLA touchdown of the day.
All-American UCLA kicker Kai Forbath was excellent, converting all three of his field goal attempts, all of them from outside 50 yards, but those kicks didn't prove enough once Stanford's offense came out of its hibernation at halftime.
"We had Stanford on the ropes in the first half, but we really needed another touchdown," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "It's a shame to see Kai lose, he was just incredible today, but hopefully we won't need him to hit three a game from 50-plus moving forward. It's hard to win in the Pac-10, especially against an offense like Stanford's, if you can't match their touchdowns with touchdowns of your own."
If Neuheisel and his Bruins are to find the ever-elusive end zone, perhaps the longtime Washington coach needs to look to relative newcomer Jim Harbaugh for inspiration, and spice up his play calling. For just seven short days after unleashing a halfback pass against hapless Sacramento State for Stanford's first touchdown of the season, Harbaugh and the offensive brain trust appeared to find a new comfort level today with two eccentric calls in particular tilting the scales in their favor.
First, on a third and 26 in the first quarter, Harbaugh marched out the punt team, surprising a UCLA unit in its base defense. UCLA adjusted at the line – only to see punter Daniel Zychlinski fire an out to receiver Ryan Whalen that went 27 yards for the first down.
Second, not once, not twice, but four times in a row in the third quarter did Harbaugh call the same power option play. Quarterback Andrew Luck and tailback Jeremy Stewart executed it to perfection, gaining two first downs on the first three plays, all Luck keeps. With UCLA keying on Luck on the next play, from UCLA's 34 with 1:48 left in the third, Stewart got free wide, and a vicious spin move left the one man standing between him and the end zone flailing at air. Stewart's 34-yard score gave Stanford a 14-13 lead, its first of the game.
"That's our philosophy: pound the ball," Harbaugh said. "Last year with Toby, we ran power over and over again against USC, so if a D can't stop it, you know I'll keep keep calling the same play. Today, we wanted to get Andrew out wide and in on the action too, because maybe they weren't respecting his legs as much as they should have. [Pause.] Bet that won't happen again, huh?"
Though UCLA would retake a 16-14 lead on a 55-yard Forbath field goal with 10:24 left; Stanford had cracked UCLA's D after a half of futility. After the squads traded punts, Taylor's game-winning touchdown capped a methodical 75-yard, 13-play Cardinal drive featuring steady, short gains on a balance of passing and rushing – precisely the kind of offense Stanford fans are used to from last year, but the Cardinal have struggled to find thus far this season. A two-point conversion on a Whalen bubble screen provided the final margin.
Again, Andrew Luck struggled statistically – finishing just 11-of-29 for 126 yards as UCLA outgained the Cardinal 354 yards to 333 – but Stanford held the Bruins to minus-13 rush yards while running for 180 yards themselves, decisively winning the battle on the line of scrimmage. Along with some timely play by the Stanford defense, that discrepancy was enough to get the Cardinal out of the Rose Bowl with a win, and back to Palo Alto atop the Pac-10.
UCLA Kai Forbath 53-yard field goal, 5:51 left. UCLA 3, Stanford 0.
UCLA Kevin Prince 54-yd touchdown pass to Taylor Embree, 5:15 left. UCLA 10, Stanford 0.
UCLA Kai Forbath 55-yard field goal, 0:00 left. UCLA 13, Stanford 0.
Stanford LB Chike Amajoyi 27-yard fumble return, 9:33 left. UCLA 13, Stanford 7.
Stanford RB Jeremy Stewart 34-yard run, 1:48 left. Stanford 14, UCLA 13.
UCLA Kai Forbath 55-yard field goal, 10:24 left. UCLA 16, Stanford 14.
Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor 6-yard run, 2:33 left. Stanford 20, UCLA 16.
2PT conversion: QB A. Luck 3-yard pass to WR R. Whalen. Stanford 22, UCLA 16.
|Third down conversions||5-10||0-8|
Key Stanford player stats
QB Andrew Luck 11-of-29, 126 yards, 0 TD
RB Jeremy Stewart 9-109-1
RB Stepfan Taylor 15-38-1
WR Ryan Whalen 3-63-0 (2 pt. conversion)
CB Michael Thomas 15 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 FF.
CB Johnson Bademosi 1 FF
LB Chike Amajoyi 8 tackles, 1 FR (27-yd TD return)
DL Thomas Kieser 1 FR (30-yard return)
DL Chase Thomas 1 FR
S Delano Howell 6 tackles
Inspired by reading stories like this as a kid in the Michigan student newspaper on game days, the author hopes you enjoy reading this series every bit as much as he enjoys writing it. The 2010 season is being simulated on EA Sports NCAA 2011, with the author playing all Stanford games and simulating the rest in a dynasty mode.
All statistics, game summary, rankings, player news and out-of-town scores are reported unchanged from game simulation. (I.e. Don't call the author pessimistic if Stanford struggles. Call him bad at video games.)
Got any idea for future weeks, especially if they're funny? PM dannovi.
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