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Berth in Pac-12 title game at stake for Stanford

The SportsXchange

As impressive as Stanford's 17-14 overtime upset of Oregon was, it may not mean much if the Cardinal loses to UCLA in Los Angeles on Nov. 24 in the team's final regular-season game.

That's because a berth in the Pac-12 championship game may be on the line for the Cardinal, and to get to the Rose Bowl, the Cardinal needs to win the conference title game.

The possibilities are a bit complicated, because Stanford could back into the Pac-12 title game with a loss to UCLA coupled with an Oregon State victory over Oregon on Nov. 24. But it's very possible that Stanford will have to beat the Bruins in consecutive weekends to win the Pac-12 title and get to the Rose Bowl. It's also possible that the Cardinal will play its final three games of the season at the Rose Bowl.

The simplest scenario for Stanford is to beat UCLA on Nov. 24 at the Rose Bowl, which would ensure that the Cardinal will host UCLA in the Pac-12 championship game on Nov. 30.

Regaining an emotional peak after such emotional victories will be difficult for both teams, although Stanford probably has a little more incentive, because the Bruins have already clinched the Pac-12 South title and a berth in the conference title game by virtue of their 38-28 victory over USC on Nov. 17.

Nonetheless, the Bruins are at home and have won five straight, having scored 38 points or more in each of the last four.

The Bruins present many of the same problems on offense that Oregon did. UCLA's Brett Hundley is a mobile quarterback who can run the option and rack up big yardage passing, much like Oregon's Marcus Mariota. And UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin provides the same kind of big-play potential as Oregon's Kenjon Barner. And both Oregon and UCLA like to spread things out on offense and take advantage of their athleticism in space.

Whether Stanford's defense can limit UCLA as effectively as it did the Ducks is the question.

Stanford redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan has played well in each of the past three games, and he will be making his third career start when he faces the Bruins.

If he plays as well as he did in the three previous games, the Cardinal should be able to move the ball and score enough points to win.

NOTES, QUOTES

Variety of scenarios abound for the Cardinal

--Here are the scenarios for Stanford heading into its final regular-season game against UCLA:

If Stanford beats UCLA on Nov. 24, it will host the Pac-12 title game against UCLA on Nov. 30. Stanford would earn the home field by virtue of a better conference record than UCLA.

If Stanford loses on Nov. 24 and Oregon beats Oregon State the same day, Oregon will finish first in the Pac-12 North and will host UCLA in the Pac-12 title game.

If Stanford and Oregon both lose on Nov. 24, Stanford would play UCLA at the Rose Bowl in the Pac-12 title game on Nov. 30. In that scenario, Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State would finish in a three-way tie for first in the Pac-12 North, and Stanford would win the tiebreaker because it beat both Oregon and Oregon State during the season. UCLA would earn the home field in the title game in that case because Stanford and UCLA would have the same conference record, but UCLA would win the tiebreak because it won the head-to-head matchup against Stanford.

If Stanford beats UCLA in the Pac-12 title game on the Bruins' home field, it would play in the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl, which would be the Cardinal's third straight game at that site in this scenario.

--It's conceivable, but unlikely, that Stanford could get to the Rose Bowl even if it loses to UCLA. That would require Oregon to win its remaining two games and earn a berth in the national championship game. The Rose Bowl then would have the option of taking another Pac-12 team as an at-large team, as long as that team finishes in the top 14 of the final BCS standings. However, the Rose Bowl likely would take UCLA in that scenario if UCLA and Stanford are both eligible.

--Stanford moved up to No. 8 in the BCS standings on Nov. 18, and rose to No. 11 in both the Associate Press and USA Today polls. The Cardinal is in the AP top 25 for the 44th straight week, dating back to Sept. 5, 2010.

SERIES HISTORY: UCLA leads 45-34-3 (last meeting, 2011, 45-19 Stanford).

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Stanford's offense has improved immeasurably since redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan became the starting quarterback. He has completed 74.2 percent of his passes, with seven touchdowns and three interceptions, and he has run for 140 yards, good for second on the team. He adds several dimensions not present with Josh Nunes, most significantly the threat of running the option. Even the Cardinal running game is more effective with Hogan in there. TB Stepfan Taylor is averaging 111.1 yards a game, and the Cardinal probably has the best tight end tandem in the country with Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz. Ertz was particularly effective against Oregon with 11 catches for 106 yards and an acrobatic touchdown catch to tie the game with 1:35 left in the fourth quarter. The Cardinal lacks receiving threats on the outside, and it does not have big-play weapons. Hogan's one weakness is that he has not yet shown proficiency throwing the deep ball.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Cardinal defense has been outstanding this season except for the Oct. 13 game against Arizona, which used its spread option offense and athleticism to create space and slice apart the Cardinal. However, the Cardinal was outstanding against Oregon's speedy spread offense, limiting the Ducks to 14 points, the first time they had been held under 42 all season. The Cardinal ranks second in the country against the run, second in sacks with 43 (although the Stanford statistics have the Cardinal with 44 sacks) and first in tackles for loss with 101. Stanford's front seven is among the best in the country, and its depth and talent at the four linebacker spots are unmatched. Stanford ranks 89th in the country against the pass, partly because teams seldom try to run, but also because cornerback is the Cardinal's biggest weakness. The Cardinal counters much of that with a strong pass rush.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "One, I never look back. And, two, all these things are in the hands of voters and computers, and there's no telling what would or could happen." -- Stanford coach Davis Shaw, on whether he thought the Cardinal might be in the national-championship chase if a controversial call on the final play of the overtime loss to Notre Dame had gone Stanford's way.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Stanford at UCLA, Nov. 24 -- Stanford is 9-2 (7-1 in the Pac-12) after a 17-14 overtime victory over then-No. 2 Oregon on Nov. 17 and can clinch a berth in the Pac-12 title game with a victory over the Bruins. UCLA (9-2, 6-2) has won five straight and has already clinched a berth in the conference title game after its 38-28 victory over USC on Nov. 17. Stanford would get the home field in the conference title game against UCLA if it beats the Bruins in the regular-season finale for both teams. Stanford has won the last three meetings with UCLA.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Stanford must control the game's tempo and the clock by churning out long drives with a consistent running game and high-percentage passes. QB Kevin Hogan's mobility will be critical because UCLA is fifth in the nation in sacks, and Hogan will have to buy time to get off passes and avoid losses. If the game turns into a shootout, Stanford is in trouble because it does not have enough offensive weapons to hang with UCLA. Stanford has won its past two games against Oregon and Oregon State despite committing seven turnovers in those games, but it can't afford to keep doing that. Defensively, the key for Stanford is to apply pressure on UCLA QB Brett Hundley. Although Hundley is mobile, the Bruins have allowed 36 sacks, and only eight teams in the country have allowed more. When he is harried, he can make mistakes. If he has time, he can carve up Stanford's secondary with his passing and running. UCLA RB Johnathan Franklin is fifth in the nation in rushing, but Stanford's defense has done a good job of handling such runners, like it did Oregon's Kenjon Barner.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

OLBs Chase Thomas/Trent Murphy -- Thomas and Murphy have combined for 26.5 tackles for losses (including 13 sacks), 11 quarterback hurries, seven passes knocked down and four fumble recoveries. Both are capable making game-changing plays.

S Ed Reynolds -- Reynolds has five interceptions, including three he returned for touchdowns. He is very good at anticipating passes from his centerfield position.

TE Zach Ertz -- Ertz has 58 catches, twice the number of Stanford's No. 2 receiver, and his 747 receiving yards are nearly twice the team's second-leading receiver in yardage. His six touchdown catches also lead the team.

TB Stepfan Taylor -- Taylor is averaging 111.1 rushing yards a game, and he had 114 and 161 yards rushing, respectively, in the critical victories over Oregon State and Oregon.

QB Kevin Hogan -- He has completed 74.2 percent of his passes and has been outstanding in the three games in which he got significant playing time, including victories in his two starts against Oregon and Oregon State. His versatility, decisiveness and mobility give the Cardinal dimensions it did not have without him. He can run the option effectively, and he can roll out to either side and throw accurately.

ROSTER REPORT:

--TE Zach Ertz has been named one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's top tight end. Ertz was also named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against Oregon, when he caught 11 passes for 106 yards, including an acrobatic touchdown catch to tie the game with 1:35 left in the fourth quarter.

--P Daniel Zychlinski was named Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week for his performance against Oregon. He averaged 45.7 yards on six punts, including kicks of 62 and 58 yards. Five of his punts were placed inside the Oregon 20-yard line, and three were inside the Oregon 10.

--RB Anthony Wilkerson is questionable for the UCLA game with an undisclosed injury.

--ILB Shayne Skov was named the Walter Camp national Defensive Player of the Week for his play against Oregon, when he had a team-high 10 tackles, including one for loss.
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