Stanford moves to 3-0 with two unlikely last-minute touchdowns against the Bruins

September 28, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 28, 2016

Late on Saturday night, matters were looking dire for the No. 7 Stanford football team.

The squad, playing in its first road game of the season, was trailing UCLA 13-9 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, having mustered just a trio of Conrad Ukropina field goals in more than three and a half quarters of play. After Ryan Burns scrambled for two yards on third down with three yards to go, head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren had to decide whether or not to go for it on fourth and 1 at the team’s own 39-yard line.

The seconds ticked away; then the Cardinal used its first timeout, with 4:51 remaining in the game. Then Stanford punted, and fans of the team had to hope against hope that the Cardinal defense could stand fast against Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen and his potent attack.

The white-clad defense had played decently, allowing just one touchdown and two field goals. Notably, all of UCLA’s first-half points — the TD and a three-point kick — had followed Stanford mistakes: An interception, which linebacker Kenny Burns returned 40 yards to the Stanford 26, and a fumble following an instance of targeting for which, oddly, a Bruins defender was not penalized.

Despite this, I was not at all certain that Stanford would be able to salvage a victory from what had been an uneven performance. My hopes sank even further when, on second down, Bruins back Bolu Olorunfunmi rushed for 23 yards.

But then the defense stepped up, with lineman Harrison Phillips and linebacker Kevin Palma holding Olorunfunmi to four yards on his next two carries. On third and six, Rosen completed a short pass, but free safety Zach Hoffpauir stopped receiver Eldridge Massington two yards shy of the first-down marker.

Stanford used its final timeout with two minutes and 13 seconds left to play, and then the Bruins punted on 4th and 2 from their 46-yard line.

Do-everything Cardinal player Christian McCaffrey called for a fair catch at the 15, but redshirt senior Marcus Rios interfered with the play. That egregious penalty set up Stanford for a potential game-winning drive starting at the team’s own 30-yard line with 1:58 showing on the clock.

What did Stanford have going for it at that point? On the positive side, McCaffrey had been his usual outstanding self, carrying the ball 25 times for 134 yards and making two catches for 13. On the minus side, Burns was helming the team, and to that point the senior quarterback had completed just eight passes in 17 tries for 71 yards.

But facing more pressure than he ever had during his college career, Burns stepped up. On the opening play of the drive, he hit Trenton Irwin for 23 yards. Burns then targeted sophomore wideout J.J. Arcega-Whiteside on three consecutive plays; only one of those was completed, but it went for a 14-yard gain, setting up first down at the Bruins 33-yard line.

Stanford’s next positive play was another Burns throw to Irwin, for another 14 yards, giving the team first down at the UCLA 19 with 67 seconds remaining.

Burns continued throwing. His sixth pass of the drive, to Michael Rector, was broken up by UCLA’s Fabian Moreau. His seventh, with a minute to go, was again to Irwin and again completed, gaining seven yards.

That brought up third and 3 at the 12, and here Shaw and Bloomgren dialed up the only run of the drive: A four-yard McCaffrey gain, setting up first and goal. Burns spiked the ball to stop the clock with 28 seconds remaining.

On the ensuing play, Burns dropped back three steps and looked to his left as Arcega-Whiteside fought to separate himself from Nate Meadors. The two men were only about three yards past the line of scrimmage, and still entangled, when Burns lofted a high, arcing pass to the near left corner of the end zone.

As the ball started dropping back to earth, Arcega-Whiteside — a sophomore who had entered the game with no collegiate catches, and who had had just one going into the fourth period — jumped into the air, leaning the upper half of his body away from Meadors.

After the play, the UCLA defensive back waved his hands in a horizontal motion in a vain attempt to persuade the officials that Arcega-Whiteside had landed out of bounds. But the Stanford sophomore had clearly put his right foot on the turf before falling out of bounds, maintaining control of the football the entire way. In other words, as I tweeted:

This was not the most amazing catch ever made in a Stanford–UCLA game. Arcega-Whiteside’s snag, while excellent, was not as good as Kodi’s Catch of 2013 and not nearly as eye-popping as Francis Owusu’s one-handed reach-around from last year.

But given the relative inexperience of the Cardinal players on either end of the throw, and given the situation — down four points in the final minute — it may have been the most important catch in the Stanford-UCLA rivalry in quite a while. The touchdown, Stanford’s first of the game, gave the visitors a 16-13 lead, their first since UCLA had taken a 7-3 advantage on their first (and only) touchdown late in the first quarter.

Cardinal fans the world over heaved an immense sigh of relief as Ukropina kicked a successful PAT. Now, UCLA would need a touchdown to win, because a field goal would just send the game into overtime.

It was not to be, of course. On first and 10, Rosen threw to Darren Andrews for a 24-yard gain, advancing to the Bruins’ 47-yard line. But his next throw was incomplete. UCLA then called timeout with four seconds to go to prepare itself for a do-or-die final play.

The Cardinal defense aligned in a 3-1-7 touchdown-prevention formation. On the snap, outside linebacker Joey Alfieri, starting on on the left side of the defensive line, ran outside UCLA tackle Kolton Miller. As Rosen took a deep drop, Alfieri ran even deeper. He eventually shook loose from his man, and as Miller ran in the wrong direction, Alfieri started moving upfield.

Alfieri knocked Rosen to the ground, which jarred loose the football. Somehow, the pigskin found its way into the arms of Solomon Thomas, who had been engaged in a double-team around the 38-yard line. Instantly, it seemed, Thomas broke free of the two Bruins linemen and rumbled into the end zone without pursuit. The improbable game-ending touchdown made the final score Stanford 22, UCLA 13.

It also gave Stanford its ninth straight win in the series, the longest by either team. The squad is now 25-2 against in-state foes since 2010, a spectacular run that would have been madness to contemplate when Jim Harbaugh took the coaching reins back in 2007. Shaw has yet to lose in five games against UCLA as a head coach.

The Cardinal, which retained its No. 7 national ranking, is one of four unbeaten Pac-12 teams. The team will travel to Seattle Friday night for a nationally televised ESPN game against one of the other unbeatens — highly touted No. 10 Washington. It should make for a very interesting game.

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