Just a week after meeting in the regular- season finale, the No. 17 UCLA Bruins and the No. 8 Stanford Cardinal will square off yet again, this time with the Pac-12 title on the line at Stanford Stadium.
Last weekend UCLA couldn't put up enough offense in a 35-17 loss to the Cardinal at the Rose Bowl. The loss dropped the Bruins to 9-3 overall and 6-3 in league play, but UCLA had already wrapped up the Pac-12 South division with a win in the previous week against USC. This is the second straight season the Bruins will play in the conference title game, since USC was not eligible last season. This time around the Bruins are looking for a different result after they were dropped 49-31 by Oregon in 2011.
With the win last weekend Stanford clinched the Pac-12 North Division with a mark of 8-1 against league foes and a 10-2 mark overall. Stanford will be hosting the title game at Stanford Stadium where it is a perfect 6-0 this season.
"We're really excited that we put ourselves in a position to host the Pac-12 Championship Game," head coach David Shaw said. "I'm looking forward to seeing Stanford Stadium rocking because we will need that advantage to earn our way into the Rose Bowl."
Despite the loss last weekend, UCLA still leads the all-time series 45-35-3 although Stanford as a slight edge at home (20-19-2), including a 45-19 win last season.
Last week the Bruins struggled to get into an offensive rhythm against the staunch Cardinal defense. UCLA finished with only 334 yards of total offense including just 73 yards on the ground. On the season, UCLA is averaging 475.7 yards of total offense per game which is the third best mark in the conference.
On the season, Johnathan Franklin has been fantastic in running the ball for UCLA. Franklin has rushed for 1,506 yards and 11 touchdowns on 249 carries and has been durable enough to have nearly 200 more carries than any other running back on the squad. However Franklin ran into a wall against Stanford, the top rushing defense in the country, finishing with only 65 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries last week.
Freshman quarterback Brett Hundley has enjoyed a stellar year but had a less than impressive game against Stanford by completing 20-of-38 pass attempts for 261 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Hundley was constantly under pressure as he was sacked seven times in the game. Hundley's overall numbers (67.8 completion percentage, 3,234 yards, 26 TDs, 10 INTs) are still solid but he needs to get back to that level.
Hundley has really spread the ball around with six different players making at least 24 receptions this season. The lead receiver is Shaquelle Evans (51 receptions, 771 yards, 2 TDs) who has a ton of big-play ability including a 71-yard reception earlier in the year. Tight end Joseph Fauria (39 receptions, 544 yards, 11 TDs) has also been leaned on heavily, especially in the red zone.
On defense UCLA has been closer to the bottom of the conference. The Bruins rank eighth in the Pac-12 in both scoring (25.8 ppg) and total defense (417.0 ypg). In fact UCLA is one of only five teams in the conference to be surrendering more than 400 yards of total offense to its opponents. UCLA has been particularly weak in the red zone where teams score at a success rate of 87.5 percent, the second-worst mark in the conference.
Eric Kendricks (127 tackles, 6.0 TFLs) has stopped just about anything that has crossed his path this season, while Anthony Barr (66.0 tackles, 19.0 TFLs, 12.0 sacks), Datone Jones (50 tackles, 15.5 TFLs, 5.0 sacks), Damien Holmes (50 tackles, 10.0 TFLs, 5.5 sacks) and Cassius Marsh (46 tackles, 10.0 TFLs, 7.5 sacks) have formed an imposing frontline that constantly makes plays.
Head coach Jim Mora has been particularly impressed with Barr who made the transition from full-back to outside linebacker this season.
"I wouldn't say (Barr) is almost an All-American caliber player, I would say he is an All-American caliber player," Mora said. "I think he is the most impactful defensive player in the Pac-12."
Shaw deserves a bulk of the credit for Stanford's rise to the title game this season. Many thought that with the departure of Andrew Luck the Cardinal would take a step back. Instead the Cardinal posted their third straight 10-win season and are now playing for its 13th conference title. The conference took notice as Shaw was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year on Monday.
Bringing back running back Stepfan Taylor can't be overlooked. Taylor has just about carried the offense on his shoulder this season, racking up 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns on 278 carries, while also bringing in 32 receptions for 215 yards and an additional two scores. No other player on the squad has more than 45 rushing attempts and only Zach Ertz has more receptions. Last week against the Bruins, Taylor ripped off 142 yards and a pair of scores on just 20 carries.
Taylor has made things easier for Kevin Hogan who has come in during the last few weeks to replace a struggling Josh Nunes. Hogan has completed 73.0 percent of his passes for 818 yards, eight touchdown and only three interceptions in three starts, but has not been called on to carry the offense at any point. He was solid (15-of-22, 160 yards, TD) against UCLA.
Ertz also makes things simpler for Hogan. The tight end leads the team in receptions (63), yards (818) and touchdowns (6) through the air. The second best option is Levine Toilolo (23 receptions, 387 yards, 4 TDs).
However it is not the offense that foes have really had to prepare for against Stanford but rather the defense. The Cardinal are near the top of the country in numerous defensive categories, including scoring (16.9 ppg 11th) and total defense (328.8 ypg, 19th). However it is against the run that the Cardinal have been the most dominant, leading the nation in that category (71.4 ypg). Creating negative plays is key to those efforts as Stanford is the top team in the country in sacks (50) and tackles for loss (109).
Just like UCLA, there is not just one player to key in on up front. Chase Thomas (58 tackles, 12.0 TFLs, 5.5 sacks) is dangerous at the outside linebacker position, but Trent Murphy (51 tackles, 16.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks), Ben Gardner (43 tackles, 14.5 TFLs, 7.5 sacks) and Henry Anderson (42 tackles, 11.0 TFLs, 5.5 sacks) are no easier to block.
This wasn't exactly the matchup that was expected for the conference championship game as USC and Oregon were deemed the likely candidates back in August. For UCLA and Stanford though that type of talk didn't matter and certainly doesn't now.
"Our goal all year has been to get to this game and win it," Mora said about his team. "They're very focused their not tight they're lose. They're like you'd expect kids their age to be when there's something exciting out in front of them. They're excited to give it their best shot."