For the third week in a row (and second on the road), Stanford played a ranked team with their season on the line, and for the third week in a row, the Cardinal came up big to score a decisive win. Which means, once again, Stanford takes Biggest Win of the Week — no small accomplishment in November when all the biggest games are played.
UCLA came into the game riding high after its convincing win over rival USC and holding its highest position in the AP Poll since it took a No. 11 rank to Utah in 2007 (and lost to the unranked Utes 44-6. Ah, memories…).
On paper, UCLA and Stanford look a lot alike. Both teams have stern head coaches, both teams start freshman quarterbacks, both teams are led by phenomenal running backs, and both teams have some legitimate stars on defense.
But this preview of next week’s North v. South championship contest was also a classic matchup of a disciplined team versus a haphazard one. UCLA is the single most penalized team in the nation, having lost nearly 1150 yards on the season. That’s like having a negative all-conference running back! And the 135 yards the Bruins rang up on Saturday equaled a huge total, even for them.
Those penalties proved to be killers. In the first three quarters (when all the game’s points were scored), UCLA’s only offensive penalty that did not lead directly to a punt was one the Bruins committed after scoring a touchdown.
On the other side of the ball, the Bruins’ only defensive penalty that didn’t lead to a Stanford TD was one that sustained a drive, which ended in a missed FG.
After the game, David Shaw said that he expects a much tougher contest next week from the Bruins. He should! Simply cutting penalties to an average rate would make the Bruins a much more competitive opponent for Stanford on Friday night.
As for the methodical Cardinal, the Pac-12 now has six teams that at least received votes in this week’s AP poll (seriously though, who voted for Arizona??). Stanford is 5-0 against those teams, including wins over two teams ranked No. 2 and one over No. 11. Stanford is also tied with an Oregon team it beat for fewest conference losses.
You would think that alone would be enough to secure the conference championship and bid to the Rose Bowl, but in this age of money-grab football, the Cardinal must gear up to play a championship game v. the same team they beat decisively on the road only a few days ago.
But if any team is prepared to win a game where there is no air of mystery, it is David Shaw’s Stanford team that eschews the element of surprise for flawless execution. There is little secrecy in lining up in the Power-I and running to the strong side. Still, it’s tough to beat a good team twice in a year, let alone twice in a week. Simply because the game is an immediate rematch, the title tilt should have some intrigue.
This season’s Territorial Cup featured two teams that were exciting and disappointing at the same time. Both UA and ASU have appeared in the AP top 25 this season with new coaches who brought explosive offenses to the desert. Both have some impressive wins and have looked great in bursts. But both fan bases raised their expectations too high, too soon, and both teams stumbled into the rivalry game bowl eligible, but only 4-4 in conference play.
Arizona had a better overall record coming into the game, more votes in the AP poll, and more impressive wins on its resume, but the Wildcats’ No. 118 ranked defense failed them once again, allowing an unthinkable 24 points in the 4th quarter to hand ASU a come from behind win in the first rivalry game of the new coaches’ era.
The Wildcats had the game’s two biggest stars in Kadeem Carey and quarterback Matt Scott, and outgained the Devils 522-460, but UA turned the ball over to the Devils four times in the game. All four times, including twice during the 4th quarter comeback, opportunistic ASU responded with touchdowns.
ASU doesn’t have the big time statistical stars that Arizona boasts, but that is probably a compliment to the Devils. Todd Graham’s system spreads the ball around so you don’t know where they’re going to hit you. Cameron Marshall was a pre-season all conference 2nd teamer, and he has been excellent this season, but freshman DJ Foster and JC transfer Marion Grice have arguably been even better. Throw in two QBs who can run and a stable of fast receivers (who also sometimes carry out of the backfield) and you have arguably the most diversified offense in the Pac-12.
The loss gives the Wildcats a losing conference record and likely sends them to a holiday in Albuquerque for the New Mexico Bowl while victorious ASU will either go to Vegas or San Francisco. Nicer destinations and later bowls, that will give the Devils the important boost of extra practices with their new coaching staff. UA could have used that too. Did I mention they have to go to Albuquerque?
Worst loss of the week, indeed.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK:
A tip of the cap to Utah’s John White IV who carried 20 times for 168 yards (8.4 ypc) on Saturday and became the 1st running back in Utah’s 120+ years of football to rush for over 1,000 yards in back to back seasons.
However, White registered those stats against Colorado, so like Ka’Deem Carey and Matt Barkley before him must forfeit the POY award to a player who faced a real opponent.
And that player is Stanford’s old faithful, Stepfan Taylor who also carried 20 times on Saturday for 142 yards (7.1 ypc) and two touchdowns in Stanford’s Division clinching win at UCLA. Taylor is probably the most consistent offensive performer and has distinguished himself in a conference where it seems like everyone has a great running back. Though a lot of backs put up big numbers in the Pac, no one else does it quite like Taylor who sees stacked boxes on a routine basis and does not benefit from the mis-direction shell games that backs enjoy at Arizona and Oregon.
Taylor is also a big game player. Unlike the flashy stars who pad their stats against lousy defenses, Taylor is generally lightly used by the Cardinal in the games that don’t mean much. 69 yards against Duke, 58 v. Washington State, 43 against Colorado. But when the Stakes get high, the diminutive back plays BIG. 153 yards against then #2 USC, 189 yards in the Big Game against Cal, 114 against No. 11 Oregon State, a HUGE 161 against No. 2 Oregon, and perhaps most impressive, 102 yards against the nation’s best rush defense, Notre Dame (one of only two men to rush over 100 against the Irish this year).
Stanford plays old fashioned, run-it-down your throat football. The Cardinal tell you when Taylor is getting the ball, where he’s going to run it and then dare you to stop him. More often than not, defenses can’t. That’s why Stanford won the second toughest division in FBS football and will be favored to win the Rose Bowl. Taylor is the player of the week for cinching the division, and has the inside track for Pac-12 Player of the Year.
MOST PENALIZED CONFERENCE IN THE FBS:
If it seems to you like a lot of the games you watch in the Pac are swayed by penalties, you are on to something. We mentioned earlier that UCLA is the most penalized team in the FBS with 1149 yards (so far). That puts them at 96 yards per game and #124 of 124 teams.
However, the Bruins have plenty of Pac-12 company in the brotherhood of the mustard cloth. In fact, of the 5 most penalized teams in the nation, an incredible 4 (how many?) are from the Pac: No. 124 UCLA, No. 123 Cal, No. 122 Washington, and No. 120 Oregon.
But that’s not all! USC is No. 110, Washington State is No. 100, Oregon State is No. 96, Utah is No. 93, and Arizona is No. 85!
Yes, the West coast is known for it’s laid back attitude, and yes, many of the states in the Pac are known for having lenient marijuana legislation. But it’s hard to believe that 7 of the 12 teams in the Pac are in the least disciplined 25 percent of the FBS; especially considering the top flight coaching and players in the conference.
PTR has long felt that the Pac has the worst officials of the Big Six leagues and has seen many games this season swing on dicey penalty calls. Larry Scott is doing a lot to re-vamp the conference from a media and technology perspective, and that’s all been wonderful. But the quality of the on-field product would be much better with improved officiating. There is no reason that the Conference cannot continue to be a pioneer with media and still improve the basics. Keep up the good work Larry, but don’t forget to upgrade the officiating!