No upset Bruin: Stanford dismantles UCLA, 56-35, on national television

October 17, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 17, 2015

“I want to just run a big picture of Christian McCaffrey instead of a recap tomorrow,” Do-Hyoung Park, a Stanford student and sportswriter, tweeted late in the third quarter of the Cardinal football team’s 56-20 demolition of the visiting UCLA Bruins.

And why not? The super sophomore was only his regular extraordinary self during Thursday night’s game, which was broadcast to a national audience by ESPN. His 25 rushes went for a school-record 243 yards, easily cruising past the mark of 223 yards that Toby Gerhart set on 38 carries against Oregon in 2009. McCaffrey also tied a school record with four touchdowns, which had been done eight times previously in Stanford history. (The feat has now been accomplished on five occasions since Jim Harbaugh became Stanford’s head coach in 2007.)

McCaffrey’s 96-yard kickoff return set up the first of Kevin Hogan’s three touchdown passes, giving the Cardinal an early 14-3 lead on the Bruins. Add in a four-yard catch and a second kickoff return, this one for 26 yards, and all this spectacular athlete did was run up 369 all-purpose yards, the highest single-game total by any college player so far this year. His per-game average of 253 all-phases yards surpasses that of the runner-up, San Jose State’s Tyler Ervin, by 19 yards.

Incidentally, McCaffrey has now rushed for at least 100 yards in the past four games. Not so incidentally, the Cardinal has rushed for 300 or more yards in the past four games and scored at least 40 points during each of those outings.

While McCaffrey was unquestionably the star for Stanford, other players earned spots on the highlight reel. In fact, junior wideout Francis Owusu made what will surely remembered as one of the top 10 — heck, top three! — college football touchdown catches of the season.

With UCLA defender Jaleel Wadood sticking a hand in his face essentially hugging him in the end zone, Owusu had the presence of mind to reach out for a 41-yard pass from quarterback Kevin Hogan. He pinned the ball to Wadood’s back while the pair tumbled to the ground and rolled to the side. The play resulted in a pass interference foul on the defensive back, which Stanford naturally declined. (As I joked on Twitter and at the Durham bar where I was watching the game, “[t]hat would’ve been an and-one situation on the basketball court.”)

That description doesn’t even capture the complete nature of the play, which came with all the moving components of a Rube Goldberg contraption. McCaffrey took a direct snap and handed the football to Bryce Love, who was running from the left side of the formation. Love then flicked the pigskin to Hogan — he’d lined up on the right end — who lofted another one of his beautiful deep balls. Feel free to watch the play repeatedly in the video embedded in this appropriately adulatory Deadspin post.

Keen Stanford fans and observers the world over immediately connected Owusu’s snag to the amazing play — Kodi’s Catch, I like to call it — that Kodi Whitfield made against the very same UCLA Bruins at Stanford Stadium in 2013. Only moments after ESPN showed a clip of that one-handed grab, Whitfield, now a senior starting safety, jumped up to intercept an ill-advised Josh Rosen pass into multiple coverage. (The Bruins’ center was flagged for holding on the play, which also was declined.)

Stanford fans are no longer accustomed to seeing a ball-hawking defense — Whitfield’s pick was just the fifth turnover generated by the Cardinal all season, and only the third interception. The second INT came early in the first quarter, when sophomore cornerback Alijah Holder picked off a slightly underthrown Rosen pass at the 32-yard line, spun his way around a defender and cut across the field for the Cardinal’s first pick-six since Kevin Anderson’s score in the Jan. 1, 2014, Rose Bowl.

Holder’s spectacular return was the game’s first scoring play. The Bruins responded with a field goal, but on the ensuing kickoff, McCaffrey found a seam and ran wild until reaching the UCLA 4-yard line. The following snap saw Hogan casually lofting a touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper, who was unguarded. (The visiting defense was apparently prepared for a running play.)

UCLA immediately narrowed its deficit to 14-10 on a single-play scoring drive of its own when Rosen connected with Darren Andrews for a 70-yard touchdown. But the Cardinal responded with a classic Harbaugh/Shaw possession — a 14-play, 74-yard drive that ate up seven minutes and 24 seconds.

The series, which included 10 rushes, climaxed with Hogan zipping a ball to Devon Cajuste for a nine-yard touchdown early in the second quarter. The relentless ground attack seemed to sap the energy and will of the white-shirted defensive unit, which head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren evidently recognized: Stanford ran for 314 yards on 48 (!) carries while only attempting 16 passes.

The next scoring play came out of the wildcat formation from the 9-yard line when McCaffrey took the ball at the nine-yard line and was awarded a touchdown by video replay officials after initially having been called down just shy of the goal line. He scored on the following drive, too, going untouched by defenders on a 28-yard run thanks to the dominance of the offensive line. That TD made the score 35-10.

Although UCLA cut its halftime deficit to 35-17, the outcome was decided early in the third quarter. The Bruins, who received the second-half kickoff, netted no yards and punted after three plays. A minute after that, Owusu made his ridiculous touchdown catch. The Bruins scored next, with their second field goal, but McCaffrey’s third and fourth touchdown runs had the scoreboard displaying 56-20 going into the final period. The drives, respectively, spanned two plays for 75 yards and five plays for 34 yards, with reliable No. 5 carrying on every play. He found paydirt on a 70-yard run — Stanford’s fifth touchdown of 60 or more yards this year — and (ho hum!) a six-yard carry.

Meanwhile, for most of the night, Stanford’s defense was applying consistent pressure to Rosen, a talented freshman who seemed much less adept than Oregon State freshman Seth Collins at throwing on the run. However, in sharp contrast to Arizona’s backup quarterback, Jerrard Randall, Rosen was quite competent at making throws from the pocket.

Rosen finished the night 22 for 42 with 325 yards, three touchdowns and the aforementioned pair of interceptions, but he would have done much more damage had it not been for regular harassment by the Cardinal defensive front, which may be as healthy as it’s been all season. Junior linebacker Peter Kalambayi, senior defensive end Nate Lohn and junior linebacker Mike Tyler each recorded a sack. (All of the takedowns went for minute minus-nine yards.)

Tyler also recorded a pair of quarterback hurries, with sophomore linebacker Joey Alfieri adding two more. (Transfer Brennan Scarlett also recorded a hurry.) Fifth-year senior Ronnie Harris, the team’s most experienced cornerback, broke up two of Rosen’s passes, while four other Stanford defenders had breakups of their own.

This isn’t the 2014 Cardinal defense, which ranked second nationally by allowing only 16.4 points per game and third nationally with an average of 282.4 yards per game surrendered. But unless Oregon suddenly snaps into form, the only two offenses remaining on the schedule that pose a major scoring threat are Cal and Notre Dame, both of which are coming to the Farm. (Cal’s Jared Goff, a dark-horse Heisman candidate, is likely to be by far the most skilled passer to line up against the Cardinal defense.)

That’s a favorable schedule, to say the least. And if Hogan, McCaffrey and company maintain their blistering offensive prowess, Notre Dame faces a considerable risk of being run out of the stadium.

Let’s return, very briefly, to Thursday night’s happenings. A pair of garbage time Bruins touchdowns and a two-point conversion made the final score seem vaguely competitive. (The entire fourth quarter constituted garbage time, by the way.) But there was no mistaking what when on at Stanford Stadium Thursday evening: Cardinal domination of UCLA. Harbaugh and Shaw have combined to win the past eight contests against UCLA, the longest streak by either team in the 76-game series.

Last year, Stanford’s 31-10 triumph at the Rose Bowl prevented UCLA from winning the Pac-12 Southern Division. In 2012, the Cardinal and Bruins played back-to-back games, with Stanford winning 35-17 to conclude the regular season and then advancing to the Rose Bowl with a 27-24 victory in the conference championship game. The average score in the last eight games round up to Stanford 35, UCLA 16.

Going back to 2010, the Cardinal has played 47 games in its home state. It’s lost only four of those. In games against teams based in the Golden State, the squad is 20-2. Stanford’s already bested USC and UCLA this year. With a Big Game win on Nov. 21, Stanford could become the undisputed kings of California for yet another season since the start of the Harbaugh renaissance.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. On Oct. 24, the Cardinal will welcome Washington to the Farm. It’s the next step in a season that could prove to be immensely rewarding for Stanford fans.

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