The Cardinal have already bruised and dominated the Bruins entering the five-day intermission that began with a flight back to the Bay Area. The smell of blood is now in the water. It's time for the final kill at the home cathedral after saying good-bye to Saturday's 84-degree cloudless weather. This conference journey will end in sub-60 degree driving rain.
UCLA also played in the Pac-12 Championship Game last season, only to be butchered by Oregon in an Autzen Stadium ritual sacrifice. The sloppy-yet-dominant nature of Saturday's 35-17 regular season finale suggests Stanford can dial up a repeat Bruin bashing, albeit in a starkly opposite manner. The potential end, though -- a return visit to the Rose Bowl -- will justify the means.
Stanford Earns an Early Pac-12 Title Advantage
UCLA coach Jim Mora already made Friday's first mistake -- on Saturday. He kept his quarterback Brett Hundley in a virtually meaningless game (from the Bruins' perspective, they had already clinched the Pac-12 South) until the bitter end. The freshman was tossed around like a rag doll by the country's best defensive front seven. Stanford celebrated seven sacks during this Party in the Backfield, which was catered by Subway and featured a variety of Hundley sandwiches -- the most popular being the one with Chase Thomas and Ben Gardner providing the Dutch Crunch on the outside.
Expect UCLA's signal caller to still be bruised before Friday's title even kicks off, especially since the game's earlier start translates into one less day of precious recovery. Meanwhile, don't be surprised if Stepfan Taylor -- Stanford's primary offensive chess piece -- has extra bounce in his step after David Shaw brilliantly sat him for a large part of Saturday's second half.
While Taylor rested, the Cardinal front seven teed off on a warm Southern California night, overtaking the NCAA lead in quarterback takedowns and opening a commanding five-sack margin over Arizona State. Stanford's 53 sacks on the season have shattered the 1999 Rose Bowl team's school record of 48. Destiny: record-breaking sack 49, by the way, came courtesy of No. 49 himself, Ben Gardner. Derek Mason has constructed a sack factory; the Industrial Revolution is now underway. Talk about teamwork: with their staggering depth, the Farm Boys are easily outpacing the rest of the country despite the fact that leading sack man Trent Murphy is only ranked 25th in the category.
Stanford's overwhelming physicality easily overcame some sloppiness in Pasadena, which included Reed Miller's ugly long snap that ended with punter Daniel Zychlinski leveled and injured. But there was no question leaving the Rose Bowl Saturday that Stanford was the team expected to return there on New Year's Day. This was clearly illustrated by the Cardinal's balanced performance against a worn down UCLA defense, highlighted by 221 rushing yards and a repeated ground pounding that eventually caused the Bruins to fold on Taylor's 49-yard second quarter touchdown.
A Clear Advantage
Mora may have toughened his team through training camp in 110-degree San Bernardino this August, but it's clear that UCLA still has a way to go to even itself with Stanford in the trenches. While Taylor averaged 7.1 per carry in his 147-yard effort, Bruins' Doak Walker finalist Jonathan Franklin scuffled his way to only 68 yards on 21 carries, a measly 3.1 per attempt -- less than half of his 6.3 average coming in.
But the Baby Blue -- or maybe we should say Navy Blue, as UCLA threw a uniform color curve ball -- does have perimeter firepower to threaten Stanford, and it was on display early Saturday. Interestingly, the Bruins' most dangerous downfield weapons are both former Notre Dame players. Transfers Shaquelle Evans and Joseph Fauria delivered the big plays on UCLA's first offensive possession, which resulted in a game-tying touchdown. (Meanwhile, their former Irish teammates were warming up 20 minutes away in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, preparing to punch Dame's ticket to the BCS title game against USC)
Mora's problem: the big play in that early drive, a 71-yard strike to Evans, happened only after Hundley escaped the rush and bought time outside the tackles. The Stanford defense would correct its mistake from that point forward and restrict the dangerous freshman quarterback to the pocket behind excellent play from A.J. Tarpley (seven tackles) and David Parry (five stops). The Bruins gained only 18 offensive yards in the pivotal second quarter, while stud tight end Fauria caught only two passes before garbage time -- some credit goes to Tarpley again for excellent coverage within Mason's scheme.
UCLA's Best Effort?
Now, it is possible that Mora did play his cards close to the vest in this game since a potential win presented little (if no) upside to UCLA -- but the coach vehemently denied that in a heated spar with LA Times reporter TJ Simers afterward. That would explain Fauria's limited involvement and conservative first half play-calling, which relied heavily on punts from inside Stanford territory.
But, Stanford's 2012 defensive resume suggests otherwise. The same Cardinal team that held juggernaut Oregon 40 points under its season average limited UCLA to 20 points below its usual output. This unit's elite, record-breaking status is no longer in question. There's also every reason to believe that its advantage over the Bruins will remain steady when the two teams reconvene on Friday evening.
Not much will have changed, after all, except for the venue and a few new bruises on Brett Hundley's body.
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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