The alumni return, and so does dominance: Against UCLA, Stanford football notches an inspiring homecoming victory

October 25, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 25, 2013

Now that’s more like it!

That’s the thought that went through my mind, and likely the minds of Stanford football fans everywhere, as the Cardinal wrapped up a 24-10 win over UCLA last Saturday.

In every way, the game was superior to Stanford’s loss at Utah the previous week. The dangerous Brett Hundley and his Bruins offense had been averaging nearly 46 points and 547 yards per game. But last weekend, the dominating Stanford defense returned, holding the visiting squad to just 266 yards.

Saturday, which was Stanford’s homecoming, also saw the return of ground-and-pound Cardinal offense. Coach David Shaw’s squad ran 50 times and threw 25 times. When the afternoon was over — remember afternoon football, Cardinal fans? — the home team had a time-of-possession edge of about 14 and a half minutes over UCLA.

Strong safety Jordan Richards picked Hundley twice; he also led the team with 10 tackles and had a pass breakup. Ben Gardner, Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy combined for four sacks of the Bruins quarterback, including two by Murphy. The defensive stats credited Stanford with nine hurries of Hundley. That compares nicely with just three hurries by UCLA’s defense, which didn’t sack Stanford passer Kevin Hogan once.

The first half was a low-scoring affair, with Cardinal backup kicker Conrad Ukropina recording the only points on a 31-yard field goal. Ka’imi Fairbairn replied with a 38-yard boot to tie the game, 3-3, on the Bruins’ opening possession of the third quarter.

The game wouldn’t be tied for long. Fairbairn’s kickoff was returned 18 yards by Ty Montgomery, to the Stanford 24-yard line. Here’s what happened next:

• Tyler Gaffney run for 5 yards.

• Gaffney run for 4 yards.

• Gaffney run for 3 yards and a first down.

• Gaffney run for 13 yards and a first down.

• Hogan pass to Montgomery for 29 yards and a first down.

• Kelsey Young rush for a loss of 8 yards.

• Hogan pass to Kodi Whitfield for 30 yards and a touchdown.

The magnificence of Whitfield’s snag — I suspect it may become known as Kodi’s Catch — can hardly be overstated. It’s possible there have been more important catches in the history of Stanford football; Mark Bradford’s touchdown grab to beat USC in the infamous 2007 upset would be one such candidate. But if any Stanford receiver has ever made a tougher play, I’ve neither seen nor heard of it.

Whitfield was running in full stride at an angle nearly perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. He was double-covered; cornerback Ishmael Adams was practically draped around his neck, while Anthony Jefferson was darting in from the side. Whitfield barely seemed to glance in the ball’s direction; his amazing catch seemed more a product of instinct and luck than anything else.

Here’s a testament to how amazing Kodi’s Catch was. When the reception was shown during the halftime of one of last Saturday’s late games, there was a chorus of gasps at the sports bar where I was watching.

This marked the beginning of a bad string of possessions for the Bruins. Following the ensuing kickoff, Hundley and company managed to move just three yards in three plays before Richards notched the first of his interceptions. His return would have resulted in a touchdown were it not for a holding penalty on the Cardinal.

No matter. Hogan connected to Devon Cajuste for a 34-yard completion, putting the ball at the UCLA 2-yard line. (The gain came exclusively through the air; with the Bruins’ Fabian Moreau providing a close escort, Cajuste had to jump and twist his body to make a fine reception before tumbling to the ground.) Three Gaffney rushes later, the Cardinal had a touchdown that put it up 17-3.

The Bruins mounted a scoring drive on the next series, going 75 yards in 11 plays; Hundley capped the possession with a three-yard touchdown throw to Shaquelle Evans on the initial play of the fourth quarter. The score was 17-10, and the outcome still appeared to be in doubt.

No one could know it then, but the Bruins were finished scoring for the day. After the teams traded three-and-outs, the Cardinal drove 42 yards on nine plays but couldn’t cap the effort, with Ukropina — the backup to injured kicker Jordan Williamson — pushing a 46-yard field-goal try far to the right.

Another exchange of three-and-outs followed. With 2:57 remaining in the game, UCLA took possession of the ball at its own 23 when Ben Rhyne hit a 39-yard punt out of bounds. This series lasted just 17 seconds; Hundley threw three times, with two attempts falling to the ground before Richards plucked the ball out of the air at the Bruins’ 32.

Later, Gaffney — who had a career-best day with 171 yards and two scores on 36 rushes — said that the Bruins started tiring in the second quarter. He himself had no such issues.

“He looked at me in the fourth quarter, he said, ‘Coach, I ain’t tired,’” Shaw recalled following the contest. “I said, ‘We’re not taking you out any more.’ We left him in there to finish the game.”

Finish the game is exactly what Gaffney did. Again, here’s the play by play:

• Gaffney run for 3 yards.

• Timeout UCLA.

• Gaffney run for 9 yards and a first down.

• Timeout UCLA.

• Gaffney run for 6 yards.

• Timeout UCLA.

• Gaffney run for 10 yards and a first down.

• Gaffney run for 4 yards and a touchdown.

The Cardinal covered 32 yards in five plays and 58 seconds. UCLA resumed possession at its 21-yard line, but with just 102 seconds left and facing the wrong end of a 24-10 score, the final drive was academic. The Bruins moved to the Cardinal 29-yard line, but the game ended with Murphy sacking Hundley.

Hogan seemed much more comfortable than he did in his previous two games. Although he only had 227 yards, he completed 18 of 25 passes, a 72 percent clip. That compares favorably with his stats against Washington (12-20, 60 percent, one TD, one pick, 105 yards) and Utah (15-27, 56 percent, one TD, no picks, 246 yards). Hogan’s TD throw to Whitfield was accompanied by one interception, but that was the fault of Cajuste, who let the ball slip out of his arms while going to the ground late in the first half. The fact that Hogan wasn’t sacked was also extremely encouraging.

A national championship bid is still likely out of the picture for Stanford, but it feels as if the team is back on track with the victory over UCLA. Tomorrow, the team will play at Oregon State, and if the Beavers’ prolific passing attack is nothing to sniff at, at least the Cardinal knows this: They still have the stifling defense and physical rushing game that will allow them to compete, and win, against virtually any team in the nation.

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