Stanford Game: Can't Deny the Magic

Yes, there are many logical reason why it's coming down to dramatic, fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victories for UCLA this year, but sometimes there's also magic involved, along with one of the clutchest players in recent UCLA football history...

As a UCLA fan watching this game in the fourth quarter, you were thinking one of two things:

"They're going to do it again. They've done it before, they'll do it again."

"This is it. This is where the fairy tales ends. It was a fun ride, though."

I'm sure most of the blues went with option A, and most of the cranks with option B.

But you would be completely justified to think either.

When UCLA then mounted probably what was its most dramatic comeback in a collection of them this year, beating Stanford in overtime, 30-27 Saturday, if you're an average Bruin fan you probably had flashes of both feelings.

There aren't enough accurate adjectives to describe the drama, the excitement, the pure entertainment value that is the UCLA Bruins this season.

It is on one hand highly improbable, and implausible, but on the other hand it is also predictable and, almost, inevitable.

It is one of those magical and miraculous seasons that come along very infrequently. The kind that not even obsessive fans could imagine or dream about.

It is a movie script about a football team from Hollywood.

And there's no better lasting image that embodies the entire experience of this team this season than its senior quarterback Drew Olson, after having thrown a beautiful 23-yard touchdown pass in overtime to Brandon Breazell to win the game, seen in the middle of the field, with his arms up in triumph, his teammates running to him.

Everything we know about Olson makes it so fitting -- how he worked through tough years, how just about every UCLA fan in existence had disregarded him and disrepected him, thinking he would never be the type of quarterback who "has it," that could lead a team to a successful season. For Olson, who is a tough, hard-working, good kid, seeing him with his arms raised in celebration in the middle of the field, rewarded with such elation, you have to give your heart to him.

And you know why you're a college football fan.

Seasons don't come around like this often. And you can go decades without them happening at all. Probably lifetimes. In recent UCLA history, there was the magical run of the 1994-1995 UCLA basketball team, with a Drew-Olson-esque figure in Ed O'Bannon that contributed some similar heightened drama and emotion. There was the 20-0 run by the football team in the late 1990s, led by another figure of Bruin legend, Cade McNown.

Those are probably the two other times that felt similar to this in the last couple of decades.

And even if it all came crashing down with a loss against Arizona next week in Tucson, right now, here at this juncture, you have to say you've gotten your money's worth. You've been entertained, inspired, hyped, and touched, enough so that really what happens the rest of the season can't diminish it.

This probably was, in fact, UCLA's best comeback of the season. Not only because they were down by three touchdowns with 8 minutes left in the game. But because of how dramatic of a comeback it was. In the previous comebacks, there was more signs that UCLA could get its offense going before it mounted the comeback. There weren't many signs in this game up until those last 8 minutes.

UCLA's first seven possessions of the game, that stretched all the way into the fourth quarter, were made up of:

Field Goal
Drive, but missed field goal
Fumble deep in own territory

And it wasn't as if there were some positive plays in most of those series. UCLA went the first quarter and most of the second with just a few positive offensive plays from scrimmage.

Now, as a UCLA fan, the big question is: Why? Why can't UCLA's offense generally get moving earlier? Why does it take until the fourth quarter?

We went into depth to try to explain some of the contributing factors when UCLA came from behind to beat Washington State a couple of weeks ago, and we still assert those to be true. UCLA's offense is geared to wear down the defense, so it's not generally as successful early on with its two-yard runs. But it pays off in the fourth quarter when defenses have tired and loosened up.

In this case, against Stanford, the offensive game plan also, inadvertently was a very big contributor to the come-from-behind phenomenon. Many UCLA fans have been criticizing the play-calling in this game, but it really wasn't the play calling that wasn't effective. It was the game plan. UCLA's game plan was clearly drawn up to emphasize the run game, which makes sense against Stanford, a team that hasn't been very successful in defending against the run. And then it also emphasized the short passing game, which was perhaps a conservative call on the part of UCLA's offensive mind trust. Now, of course, this is far easier to do in hindsight, but it seemed pretty clear that Stanford's secondary was young, thin and vulnerable. It was a bit curious why UCLA wouldn't challenge them downfield early and often. Yes, Stanford has a pretty decent pass rush, and the Cardinal got to Olson early. But UCLA didn't throw the ball more than 12 yards down the field for the entire first half. It was a game plan that enabled Stanford's inexperienced defensive backs to practically eliminate half the field (the back half) they had to cover.

Now, if the game plan was actually to do this early, to get Stanford over-committed to the short game so you could then burn them down the field later, then UCLA's offensive coaches are geniuses. If their plan was also to allow Stanford to go up 24-3 with 8 minutes left in the game to give the Cardinal a false sense of security, then they should be working at Cal Tech.

Stanford did, in fact, help the come-from-behind phenomenon when it went into a prevent defense at that 8-minute mark in the fourth quarter. With a defense that's been more or less shutting down UCLA's offense all day, it's always curious when a coach decides to depart from what's working and try something that's completely untested in that environment and circumstance.

So, again, there were some very perceivable and understandable factors contributing to UCLA's comeback. It wasn't a fluke. Their offense is not the type that's going to surprise you early. It's designed to be almost predictable, especially in its running game. Stanford, at the beginning of the game, looked like it had been sitting in on the meetings of the UCLA offense all week. When UCLA handed off the ball to Maurice Drew early, there were a few Stanford players there – going straight to the spot without any concern for any other potential option resulting from that play. Like we said before, UCLA's formations are like tells in poker, and opposing defenses know exactly what formations UCLA will run out of, at least early in the game. UCLA's theory is – we know you know what we're doing, but we're going to do it so well, and execute it so well it won't matter.

But it hasn't exactly worked that way, at least early in games.

How it has worked, though, is in wearing down defenses so that UCLA can run better by the end of the game, and then use play-action to burn you later.

Okay, fine. We know the philosophy in the running game isn't going to change. But perhaps if UCLA had looked downfield and stretched it with some vertical passes their offense might not have sputtered so much early. And it wasn't as if Stanford's secondary had given any indication so far this season that it'd be able to cover UCLA's receivers downfield. How about maybe just one over-the-top throw down the middle to Marcedes Lewis, who didn't catch a pass until deep into the second half.

So, after anaylzing it, you can see why UCLA's offense can, many times, sputter early and then catch fire late in the game. In this game at least it seemed like it might have been able to be avoided by using some vertical passing early.

The UCLA offensive minds definitely perceived a weakness in Stanford in defending the screen. It seemed like about every third UCLA offensive play was a screen, either to a running back or a receiver. And they were generally effective on the day, even though they are riskier passes and did contribute to the fumble-itis UCLA had in a game for the first time this season.

So, while the offense, which usually has had to win games for this team all season, was faltering, UCLA's defense definitely was the unit this week that enabled UCLA to win. Stanford had great field position for most of the game, and UCLA's defense found itself defending short fields. Through almost the end of the third quarter, it only had allowed Stanford a touchdown. Stanford gained just 309 yards for the game.

It was, of course, much of it was that Stanford's offense isn't great, especially after it lost its biggest weapon, receiver Mark Bradford, early in the game to injury.

But it also was the effectiveness of UCLA's defense. It, again, made stops when it needed to. In the first half, and at the beginning of the second, Stanford had a number of good opportunities, with good field position. If it had wracked up some touchdowns, the game might have been put out of reach (well, maybe we should never say that with UCLA's offense in the fourth quarter). UCLA's defense also stepped up big in the fourth quarter when all Stanford needed to do was get a couple of first downs and it probably would win the game. But Stanford's offense got conservative, and UCLA smelled it out, and shut them down on two possessions, handing the ball back to UCLA's offense, who scored two touchdowns in the course of just a little over a total of two minutes.

It was about what you would have expected for the game matching up UCLA's defense against Stanford's offense. In fact, in our preview of the game, we predicted Stanford would score 27 points (it was the 45 points we foresaw UCLA scoring that was a little off).

So, the come-from-behind magic isn't a fluke. It might ultimately fail sometime this season. But it's not a fluke in the fact that it's just randomly happening every week. You can easily see the contributing factors that are going into it.

While many might cite Breazell's touchdown catch in the endzone in overtime as the play of the game, truly the most critical play was the 4th down conversion with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter and UCLA down 24-17. On the Stanford 6-yard line, on 4th and 2, Olson rolled out to the short side of the field, and looked like he wouldn't find anyone to throw to, and have no room to run. But he calmly found Joe Cowan curling back into space with a nice, catchable pass for a first down that was only rivaled by Andrew Baumgartner's 4th-down catch against Washington.

Both of those plays, though, you could consider on the magical side, along with Breazell's touchdown. While we've done quite a bit to explain rationally and logically what is contributing to UCLA's comebacks, there is definitely some magic in it also. While many of the contributing factors got UCLA in the position to win the games in the fourth quarter, there has been some incredible magic – and luck – that has helped pull it off.

When magical seasons like this happen, you tend to come away with a few lasting images. There was the image of Ed O'Bannon being interviewed after winning the national championship in Seattle, crying as he said, "Tyus Edney is the man." Or O'Bannon kissing the UCLA center court on Pauley Pavilion's floor before his last home game as a senior. There's the image of Cade McNown doing a flip over a tackler at the goal line to score a touchdown.

Not only is there the image of Drew Olson in the middle of Stanford Stadium holding up his fists after he threw the Breazell touchdown. There is the image of defensive end Justin Hickman, making the key sack on Stanford's quarterback, Trent Edwards, on their last key possession in regulation. Hickman injured his shoulder on the play and he ran off the field alternating between grabbing his injured shoulder and holding his arms in the air in triumph.

Again, though, so much of the memories of this season will be tied in to Drew Olson. Yes, you have Marcedes Lewis and Maurice Drew, two outstanding football players who are gamers themselves. But there hasn't been anyone – not even O'Bannon or McNown – that has made as dramatic a turnaround in image than Olson. He went from having a reputation of not being able to play under pressure or "having what it takes," to now having to be immortalized as one of the biggest clutch gamers in UCLA history.

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