A few things are a little odd about the Nov. 30 Pac-12 championship game, which matches UCLA against Stanford at Stanford Stadium.
For one thing, these are not the teams that were expected to be playing. Oregon and USC were the favorites to win the Pac-12 North and South Divisions, respectively. Both were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll at one point of the season, and both were among the top 10 on the Oct. 21 BCS standings. In fact, the Ducks are still No. 5 in the BCS.
But neither is playing in the conference title game.
Instead, the teams competing for the Rose Bowl berth had faced each other just six days earlier, with Stanford winning 35-17 in Pasadena on Nov. 24.
With the short week to get ready for the Friday night conference title game, that familiarity probably makes it easier for the two teams to prepare. Both teams obviously know the other well at this point.
And for Stanford the goal is to do pretty much the same thing it did while beating the Bruins on Nov. 24 -- namely apply pressure to UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, control Bruins running back Johnathan Franklin, avoid turnovers and make enough big plays to score enough points to win.
"We certainly need to do a better job of protecting our quarterback," UCLA coach Jim Mora said, "and we need to eliminate the big runs against us. They popped a couple of big runs that made it ugly."
Stanford sacked Hundley seven times, and that not only cost the Bruins a lot of yardage but prevented Hundley from getting into any rhythm. The Cardinal limited Franklin to 65 yards on 21 carries (3.1 yards per carry), and he never broke a long one.
Meanwhile, Stanford's Stepfan Taylor had two long runs that were pivotal to the outcome. His 42-yard touchdown run in the second quarter gave Stanford a 21-7 lead, and his 40-yard run in the third quarter put the ball at the 2-yard line and set up a score that made it 28-10.
Two UCLA turnovers in the third quarter led to 14 Stanford points that made it 35-10 and virtually sealed the Bruins' fate.
The Cardinal will be seeking its fourth win over a ranked team in four games, and the reason for Stanford's improvement can be traced to one person -- redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan.
He is 3-0 as a starter, all against ranked foes, with two coming on the road. He's completing 73 percent of his passes and has minimized his mistakes. If he plays as well in the Pac-12 title game as he has the four previous games (including his breakout game against Colorado when he entered the game late in the first quarter), the Cardinal should be on its way to the Rose Bowl.
Hogan gives Stanford an offensive threat to complement its outstanding defense.
He was a bit lucky against UCLA in the earlier meeting. He fumbled a ball that was recovered by a teammate and threw an interception that was negated by a UCLA penalty. If Hogan avoids those kinds of mistakes and continues to be an accurate thrower who makes good decisions about when to run, the Cardinal should be in good shape.
The one key difference in this game is motivation. UCLA had already clinched a berth in the conference title game when it faced Stanford the last time, while the Cardinal had to win to get in. Now the Bruins have just as much incentive as Stanford, which must fight overconfidence since it beat the Bruins earlier.
Shaw repeats as Pac-12 Coach of the Year
--Stanford coach David Shaw was named Pac-12 coach of the year for the second straight season. The conference has named a coach of the year every year since 1975, and Shaw is the fourth coach to win the Pac-12 (or Pac-10) coach of the year honor in consecutive seasons, and the second to win the award in his first two years as a head coach at any level. Oregon's Chip Kelly also won the award in his first two seasons as a head coach.
--If Stanford wins the Pac-12 title game it will play in the Rose Bowl game against the winner of the Dec. 1 Big Ten championship game between Nebraska and Wisconsin. If Stanford loses the Pac-12 title game, it would play in the Alamo Bowl against a Big 12 team, possibly TCU.
--The last time Stanford played in the Rose Bowl was 1999, and its opponent was Wisconsin, which would be the Cardinal's opponent in the Rose Bowl again this time if both teams win their conference title games. A running back (Ron Dayne) was Wisconsin's star in 1999, and a running back (Montee Ball) is the Badgers star now. In both cases, Stanford would have an African American head coach, with Tyrone Willingham being the Cardinal's head coach in 1999, and David Shaw in charge this season.
--Stanford remained at No. 8 in the BCS standings on Nov. 25, and rose to No. 8 in the Associate Press poll and No. 9 in the USA Today poll. The Cardinal is in the AP top 25 for the 45th straight week, dating back to Sept. 5, 2010.
--Stanford had five players named to the Pac-12 all-conference first team -- TE Zach Ertz, OT David Yankey, OLB Chase Thomas, OLB Trent Murphy and S Ed Reynolds. Oregon and Stanford had the most first-team selections with five apiece.
SERIES HISTORY: UCLA leads Stanford 45-35-3 (last meeting, Nov. 24, 2012, 35-17 Stanford)
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Stanford's offense has improved immeasurably since redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan became the starting quarterback. He has completed 73 percent of his passes, with eight touchdowns and three interceptions, and he has run for 162 yards, third on the team despite his limited playing time. He is 3-0 as a starter, all against ranked teams, and he adds several dimensions not present with Josh Nunes, most significantly the threat of running the option. TB Stepfan Taylor is averaging 113.7 yards a game, and the Cardinal probably has the best tight end tandem in the country with Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz. Ertz leads the team by wide margin in both receptions (63) and receiving yardage (818) and also leads in touchdown catches (six). The Cardinal lacks reliable 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 effective the past two games against Oregon and UCLA offenses that like to spread things out and use their speed. The Cardinal ranks first in the country against the run, and it held Oregon's Kenjon Barner and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin under 70 yards apiece. The Cardinal leads the nation in sacks with 53 and that is its best defense against the pass. The Cardinal secondary is its weakest link on defense, although it is much better than it was last year. The Cardinal ranks 89th in the country against the pass, partly because of its deficiencies at cornerback, and partly because teams seldom try to run against Stanford. Stanford's front seven is among the best in the country, and its depth and talent at the four linebacker spots is unmatched.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The obvious is (to) fight complacency. The idea that UCLA is going to come up here and roll over is completely wrong. I know their coach." -- Stanford coach David Shaw, on the disadvantage of having beaten UCLA just six days before facing the Bruins again in the Pac-12 title game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: UCLA at Stanford, Nov. 30, Pac-12 Championship game -- The winner goes to the Rose Bowl against the winner of the Big Ten title game, either Wisconsin or Nebraska. Stanford is 10-2 (8-1 in the Pac-12) after a 35-17 victory over UCLA in Pasadena on Nov. 24. Stanford has won six straight since its controversial overtime loss to Notre Dame. UCLA (9-3, 6-3) had won five straight and had already clinched a berth in the conference title game before playing Stanford on Nov. 24. Stanford has won the last four meetings with UCLA.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Stanford must do many of the same things it did while beating UCLA on Nov. 24. The Cardinal must control the game's tempo and the clock by churning out long drives with a consistent running game with RB Stepfan Taylor 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. He was sacked twice on Nov. 24, and Stanford could live with a repeat of that. If the game turns into a shootout, Stanford is in trouble, because it does not have enough offensive weapons to hang with UCLA. Defensively, the key for Stanford is to apply pressure on UCLA QB Brett Hundley. Although Hundley is mobile, the Bruins have allowed 43 sacks, and Stanford sacked him seven times on Nov. 24. UCLA undoubtedly will make significant changes to make sure that doesn't happen again, and the Cardinal must counter those changes to apply pressure. When Hundley 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 ninth in the nation in rushing, averaging 125.5 yards, but Stanford's defense has done a good job of handling such runners, like it did Oregon's Kenjon Barner and Franklin in the previous meeting.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
OLBs Chase Thomas/Trent Murphy -- Thomas and Murphy, both first-team all-conference picks, have combined for 28.5 tackles for losses (including 15 sacks), 11 quarterback hurries and two interceptions. Both are capable making game-changing plays.
TE Zach Ertz -- Ertz has 63 catches, nearly twice the number of Stanford's No. 2 receiver, and his 818 receiving yards are more than twice the team's second-leading receiver in yardage. His six touchdown catches also lead the team.
TB Stepfan Taylor -- Taylor is averaging 113.7 rushing yards a game, and he had 114, 161 and 142 yards rushing in the critical victories over ranked opponents Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA in the three previous games. He is second on the team in receptions with 32, and is an excellent pass-blocker.
QB Kevin Hogan -- He has completed 73 percent of his passes and has been outstanding in the four games in which he got significant playing time, including victories in his three starts against Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA. 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.
--P Daniel Zychlinski is questionable for the Pac-12 title game after sustaining an injury that knocked him out of the Nov. 24 game against the Bruins. Ben Rhyne would punt if Zychlinski can't play. Perhaps more important is that Zychlinski is the holder on place kicks, and his absence could be critical there.
--NT Terrence Stephens missed the Nov. 24 UCLA game to tend to a personal matter, and it's uncertain whether he will be available for the Pac-12 title game.
--RB Stepfan Taylor was named second-team all-Pac-12 for the second straight season. Even though he would become Stanford's career rushing leader if he gains 36 yards in the Pac-12 title game, he will leave without ever being a first-team all-conference pick.