By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: In what could be a preview of the Pac-12 title game, the No. 11 Stanford Cardinal will land in the Rose Bowl looking to slow down the No. 15 UCLA Bruins in the regular-season finale for both squads.
In a weekend in which the top two ranked teams in the country fell, Stanford posted a stunning 17-14 win in overtime over the then No. 1 Oregon Ducks. With the win the Cardinal took control of the Pac-12 North Division from the Ducks with its 7-1 mark against league foes. If Stanford wins this weekend or Oregon loses in its matchup with Oregon State, the Cardinal would earn the spot in the Pac-12 championship game on Nov. 30.
Head Coach David Shaw knows that getting to that title game is the real goal and that last weekend's win guarantees nothing.
"There is no trophy for (that) game. There is no tangible evidence of (that) game," Shaw said. "All we did was put ourselves in a good position and we are going to play a really good UCLA team (this) week."
The other half of that title game has already been decided as UCLA wrapped up the Pac-12 South division with a 38-28 win over cross-town rival USC last weekend. The win was the fifth straight for the Bruins who are 9-2 overall and 6-2 in league play in the first season under head coach Jim Mora. The nine wins is the most in a season for the Bruins since 2006 and only the fourth time in the last 20 season UCLA has reached that mark.
For a team that has been a mediocre squad in the past few seasons, the win over USC was a big one.
"It was great to finally beat our rivals and clinch the South division. It was a big game. My senior year, to go out like this," senior running back Johnathan Franklin said.
This rivalry dates back to 1925 and since then, UCLA owns a 45-34-3 series lead, although Stanford has won each of the last three contests including a 45-19 rout last season.
Switching starting quarterbacks late in the season is usually not something a team competing for a conference crown has to deal with. However Stanford has done just that with Kevin Hogan getting the start under center in each of the last two games. The sophomore took over after Josh Nunes struggled for much of the regular season. In his two games Hogan has been relatively strong as he has throw for 648 yards and seven touchdowns, while completing an impressive 74.2 percent of his passes with just three interceptions.
No matter who has been throwing the passes this season, Zach Ertz has been hauling them in. The senior tight end was named a Mackey Award finalists earlier in the week after he brought in nine passes for 75 yards and a crucial touchdown against Oregon. On the season Ertz has led the Cardinal in receptions (58), receiving yards (747) and touchdowns (6) by a wide margin. Drew Terrell (362 yards) and Levine Toilolo (377 yards, 4 TDs) are the only other receivers with more than 300 yards, while no player has reached the 30- catch plateau besides Ertz.
Joining Ertz as a pillar in the offense is Stepfan Taylor. The senior running back has been a workhorse out of the backfield this season carrying the ball 258 times for 1,222 yards and nine touchdowns. Taylor is the fourth most productive rusher in the Pac-12 and one of just five backs to be putting up more than 100 yards on the ground on a weekly basis. Taylor is perhaps the most valuable player on the offense with no other running back having more than 30 carries.
Overall Stanford is a relatively pedestrian offensive team ranking eighth in a conference of high-octane offenses in total yards (381.1 ypg).
Where Stanford differs from the powerful offenses that litter the Pac-12 is its dominating defense. In the game against Oregon, Stanford held what looked to be an unstoppable force to its lowest rushing and points total of the season. On the year Stanford is atop the Pac-12 in both total defense (328.4 ypg) and scoring defense (16.9 ppg). Where the Cardinal have been most dominant is against the run, with the team allowing the second fewest yards on the ground (71.3 pg) this season.
On a front seven filled with disruptive players, Chase Thomas has been one of the best for the Cardinal, racking up 54 total tackles, 10.0 TFLs and 3.5 sacks. The list of playmakers doesn't stop there though as Shayne Skov (58 tackles, 7.5 TFLs), Trent Murphy (16.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks), Usua Amanam (10.5 TFLs), Ben Gardner (13.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks) and Henry Anderson (11.0 TFLs, 5.5 sacks) have all been terrorizing opposing backfields.
That is bad news for UCLA which relies heavily on its ground attack to power its impressive offense. In the Pac-12, UCLA is behind only Oregon and Arizona in total offense (488.5 ypg), while trailing only the Ducks in putting points on the board (37.7 ppg). Those efforts have included the third-best rushing attack (207.5 ypg) in the conference.
UCLA has a workhorse back of its own in Johnathan Franklin. The running back has racked up 1,441 yards and 10 touchdowns on 228 carries. In the win over USC, Franklin was practically unstoppable as he finished with 171 yards and two scores on 29 carries.
Most teams breaking in a freshman quarterback would not have been able to succeed on offense like UCLA. With Brett Hundley the Bruins haven't had to deal with those issues. In just his first season Hundley has been exceptional, completing 69.4 percent of his pass attempts for 2,973 yards and 25 touchdowns. Hundley is a fantastic athlete that extends plays and is more than capable of picking up yards on the ground. Hundley has eight rushing touchdowns this season and has rushed for more than 50 yards three different times. Hundley's season has been fantastic in historical context as well with his 249 completions this season a UCLA record.
Hundley also leans on his tight end quite a bit with Joseph Fauria proving to be an invaluable asset in the passing game. Fauria has totaled only 478 yards this season but has hauled in 10 touchdown passes and is second on the team in receptions. Wide receiver Shaquelle Evans (47 receptions, 685 yards) has been utilized more down the field than in the red zone.
Obviously UCLA cannot match the firepower that Stanford brings on defense. In fact the Bruins will be hard pressed to have the same level of success considering they are on the bottom half of the conference in both scoring (25.0 ppg, eighth) and total defense (420.3 ypg, eighth). While some of that is a result of a quick-strike offense, the Bruins will need to tighten up this weekend.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks (112 tackles) is the Pac-12's leading tackler and will be needed to keep up that level of play. The Bruins have a dominating pass rush of their own with Anthony Barr (18.0 TFLs, 12.0 sacks), Datone Jones (13.5 TFLs, 4.0 sacks) and Cassius Marsh (10.0 TFLs, 7.5 sacks) all difficult players up front for opposing offensive lines to deal with.
There has been no fear shown by Stanford in playing in a hostile environment against a powerful offense. Stanford might have the best run defense in the country which will cause a load of problems for the Bruins. If Hogan continues to manage the game well and Taylor and Ertz play to where they're capable, the Cardinal will have a lot to be thankful for this holiday weekend.