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UCLA and Stanford will play for the second time in six days in the Pac-12 title game.
The second annual Pac-12 Championship game isn't exactly what fans were expecting to see entering this season. Oregon and USC were overwhelming favorites to win their respective divisions and potentially battle on Nov. 30 for more than just West Coast supremacy. Best laid plans, right?
Jim Mora instantly instilled toughness at UCLA and his squad finished the regular season 9-3 overall and 6-3 in the league. Most importantly, the Bruins posted a perfect 5-0 mark in the South Division, including a revenge home win over USC to clinch the division crown.
Stanford, meanwhile, keeps on chugging under Pac-12 Coach of the Year David Shaw. Even though Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin all departed for the NFL and had to be replaced on offense, he led the Cardinal to an identical 8-1 mark in league play this fall. This time with a division-clinching win over Oregon.
The old saying goes familiarity breeds contempt and these two might be the most familiar opponents in the history of the sport. For the second time in six days, the Cardinal and Bruins will battle, but this time, it's for a trip to the Rose Bowl. It marks the first time in college football history two teams have ever played in a season finale and then again in the conference title game.
And Gus Johnson and Charles Davis will be there to call the game at 8 p.m. ET on FOX on Friday night.
When Stanford has the ball
Not too many championship teams make quarterback switches two-thirds of the way through the season. But that is exactly what David Shaw did when, five passes into the game against Colorado, he put Kevin Hogan under center in place of Josh Nunes. All Hogan did in his first three career starts was topple three consecutive ranked opponents to clinch the North Division championship. He completed 72.8 percent of his passes (80-110) for 809 yards and eight touchdowns in the four games in which he led the Cardinal offense. He also rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown on the ground as well. Hogan’s emergence has given this offense a second dimension.
Hogan will face a Bruins' pass rush that has improved infinitely from a year ago under their new head coach. This defensive front finished 110th in the nation in sacks and 81st in rushing defense a year ago, but behind improved play from Anthony Barr and Datone Jones, UCLA ranked 5th in the country in sacks (3.33 spg) and 53rd in rushing defense this fall. If the Bruins expect to close the 35-17 gap from last weekend, it will have to pressure Hogan (15-of-22 last week, 0 INT) and stop the running game (49 att., 221 yards, 3 TD).
While Hogan has stabilized one dimension of the offense, Shaw hasn’t had to worry about his other dimension. Stepfan Taylor is one of the most complete backs in the nation after his second straight 1,300-yard, 10-TD season (1,364 and 11). He ended the season with three consectuive 100-yard efforts against ranked teams, scoring four times in those contests. Taylor has touched the ball 828 times on offense the last three years (38 games, 21.8/game), so expect Shaw to wear out his workhorse tailback in the last regular season game of his career. Especially, considering Taylor needs just 35 yards to break Stanford’s all-time rushing record held by Darrin Nelson (4,169).
When UCLA has the ball
Seven sacks, 7-of-19 on third downs, two turnovers and 334 total yards of offense is what the Stanford defense held UCLA’s high-flying offense to a week ago. Much like the defense, the Bruins have shown marked improvement under the new coaching regime, totaling 475.7 yards per game of offense and 36.0 points per contest. Yet, redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley and star tailback Johnathan Franklin will have to play better this weekend if UCLA expects to win its first conference crown since 1998.
The dynamic backfield duo has been outstanding this fall but the offensive line will have to play its best game of the year if it expects to beat Stanford. The O-Line ranks 118th nationally in sacks allowed per game (3.6/game) and is facing the No. 1 pass rush (4.4/game), the No. 1 rushing defense (71.3 ypg) and the No. 11 scoring defense (16.9 ppg) in the nation. Stanford has four players with at least 5.5 sacks, so trying to stop the versatile front should prove difficult once again.
Hundley and Franklin are closing in on more than one UCLA record. Hundley (3,516 yards total offense, 3,234 yards passing) should easily break Cade McNown’s 1998 single-season record for total offense (3,652) and passing yards (3,470) even with just an average outing Friday night. Franklin needs just 18 all-purpose yards to take over as UCLA’s all-time leader (Maurice Jones-Drew) and just 66 yards rushing to top Karim Abdul-Jabbar’s single-season school record. Additionally, one more win for Mora would give him the most wins by a Bruins first-year coach in program history.
Stanford’s senior class has won at least 10 games for the third consecutive season but have yet to claim a league championship or play in the Rose Bowl. With a 24-2 home record, this group has added motivation to close out this season with a resounding victory. Look for the Cardinal defensive front to dominate the Bruins up front and give Shaw’s Cardinal their first outright Pac-12 crown since 1999.
|Athlon Editor||Championship Prediction||YTD Pac-12 Record|
|Braden Gall||Stanford 34, UCLA 17||64-20|
|Mitch Light||Stanford 34, UCLA 27||64-20|
|Steven Lassan||Stanford 24, UCLA 20||63-21|
|David Fox||Stanford 35, UCLA 21||60-24|
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