For all the improvement UCLA showed in its first year under coach Jim Mora, the Pac-12 season had the same ultimate ending: a title game loss that cost the Bruins a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Freshman kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn missed a 52-yard field goal attempt in the closing minute of the 17th-ranked Bruins' 27-24 loss to No. 8 Stanford in the conference championship game Friday night.
Kevin Hogan led the way for the Cardinal, throwing a touchdown pass and running for another score.
"We need to mourn a little bit," Mora said. "We need to get over this one. We poured it out there today and we came up short. We'll eventually move on but this will sting for a while. You don't get that close and lose and not have it hurt."
Hogan threw for 155 yards and ran for 47 yards, but his biggest play came on third-and-15 early in the fourth quarter when Drew Terrell got past the UCLA defense and caught a tying 26-yard touchdown pass.
"There was a communication breakdown," Mora said. "We busted the coverage at a very inopportune time."
Jordan Williamson kicked his second field goal from 36 yards with 6:49 remaining for the go-ahead score, helping Stanford secure its first conference title since the 1999 season.
The Cardinal wrapped it up when Fairbairn's try went wide left with 34 seconds remaining. This marked the second straight year UCLA lost in the Pac-12 title game, but it was far more competitive than a year ago when it lost to Oregon 49-31 under Rick Neuheisel as part of a 6-8 season.
That just made the defeat more painful.
"I couldn't even watch the last seconds of the game," UCLA defensive lineman Datone Jones said. "We won with him, we're going to lose with him. That's my brother and we have his back. It just hurts."
Many of the sparse crowd announced at 31,622 rushed the field. Players, wearing their all-black uniforms, danced on the sideline and confetti flew from a stage erected on the field.
What a way to ring in the post-Andrew Luck Era: The Cardinal (11-2) will play the winner of the Big Ten title game between Nebraska and Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
"Character," said Stanford's David Shaw, the Pac-12 coach of the year in his first two seasons. "Even when we don't play well, we still play hard. Our guys played with such heart. We made plays when we needed to make plays."
UCLA's Brent Hundley threw for 177 yards and a costly interception that set up a Stanford touchdown. He still almost brought the Bruins (9-4) back with help from Johnathan Franklin, who ran for 194 yards and set the single-season rushing mark (1,700 yards) and career all-purpose mark (4,887 yards) at UCLA.
"It hurts definitely," Franklin said. "In life you have your bumps, you have your trials but all you can do is look forward."
Hogan completed 16 of 22 passes to beat a fourth ranked opponent in his fourth straight start since unseating Josh Nunes at quarterback. After the Cardinal rolled past UCLA 35-17 last Saturday at the Rose Bowl, it took all 60 minutes for another victory in the rare rematch.
The heavy rain that pounded the Bay Area most of the day relented most of the night, and a tarp covered the field until about 3 hours before kickoff. Scattered showers still made the grass a bit slick.
The surface never seemed to slow down the Bruins, who ran for 284 yards. It was the most yards rushing allowed this season by Stanford, which yielded 198 in an overtime victory at Oregon two weeks earlier.
The Cardinal won their seventh straight game to advance to their third different BCS bowl in as many seasons — a run that began behind coach Jim Harbaugh and Luck, the No. 1 overall pick of the Indianapolis Colts. Before that, the Cardinal had only won 10 games three times — 1992, 1940, 1926 — in program history.
The Bruins made the final road block more difficult than expected.
UCLA converted a pair of third downs before Franklin burst through the middle for a 51-yard touchdown on the opening drive.
Stanford answered in a hurry when Hogan ran 14 yards on a read-option keeper to convert a long third down, fullback Ryan Hewitt bulldozed through the line on a fourth-and-1 and Stepfan Taylor took a short pass 33 yards, to inches shy of the goal line. On the next play, Hogan faked a handoff and rolled untouched for the tying touchdown.
Taylor finished with 78 yards to eclipse Darrin Nelson's school rushing record of 4,169. Taylor, an outgoing senior, has 4,212 for his career.
Before the Cardinal offense even found their seats on the sideline, Hundley ran 48 yards and scrambled for a 5-yard TD to put UCLA back in front, 14-7. With the Bruins about to go ahead two scores, Ed Reynolds intercepted Hundley's pass and returned it 80 yards to set up Taylor's short TD run.
Williamson kicked a 37-yard field goal as the first half expired to give Stanford a 17-14 lead. Fairbairn answered with a field goal from 31 yards on UCLA's opening drive of the second half.
Franklin capped a 12-play, 80-yard drive with a 20-yard TD run late in the third quarter. That gave the Bruins a 24-17 lead but they couldn't close it out and earn their first Rose Bowl bid since after the 1998 season.
"If anybody thought we'd be sitting here tonight with less than 45 seconds on the clock and potential to tie it and even win it, I'm not sure anyone would have taken that bet," Mora said. "Obviously, we have a lot of work to do to become the team we want to be."
The crowd was the smallest at 50,000-seat Stanford Stadium since the Cardinal drew 30,626 against Sacramento State on Sept. 4, 2010.