Cardinal Football Strength Building; Rose Bowl Ahead

If you are a fan of Stanford football, there was much to give thanks for this past week. First, the Card went into Autzen Stadium and stole then-No. 2 Oregon’s ticket to the National Championship Game winning 17-14 in overtime, on a redemptive game winning kick from much-maligned kicker Jordan Williamson. Then, the Cardinal went down to Pasadena—they hope not for the last time this season—and demolished a rejuvenated then-No. 17 UCLA team, 35-17, to end the regular season 10-2 and No. 8 in the BCS rankings. Over the past two weeks, no team in the FBS has had a more impressive stretch.

Meanwhile, back on The Farm, Stanford prepares to host the 2012 Pacific-12 Championship Game. Despite the historic success, numerous accolades, and renewed national interest in the Stanford program attained during Andrew Luck’s tenure, it is no longer a source of nostalgic yearning for the Cardinal fan base. It is a sweet, but distant memory. This year, the Card is defined by its defense, which leads the nation in sacks (53), ranks 11th in points allowed per game (16.9), and sits at 19th in yards allowed per game (329).

The defense is headlined by the front seven, particularly linebackers Shane Skov (team-leading 63 tackles, also 2.5 sacks) and Chase Thomas (58 tackles, 5.5 sacks), and defensive linemen Trent Murphy (team-leading 9.5 sacks) and Ben Gardner (7.5 sacks). While teams generally have much more success passing the ball against the Card than running it, the secondary has played much better than expected.

Stepfan Taylor has carried the offense most of the season, becoming the first Stanford player to rush for over 1000 yards in three straight seasons, currently sitting at 1364 for the year. However, the offense often languished, especially on the road, until freshman Kevin Hogan replaced senior Josh Nunes as quarterback for the last four games. He has been accurate, smart with the ball, and engineered the game-tying drive against the Ducks. His stat line: 818 yards, 73% completion percentage, 8 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions.

Overall, this Cardinal team is the best in years. The 2010 and 2011 editions were offensive powerhouses that both went 11-1 in the regular season, but they were blown out by Oregon each year and played weaker schedules. According to ESPN’s conference power rankings, the 2012 edition is leading the second best conference in college football, after the SEC. They lost to Washington in Seattle, 17-13, and, even more devastatingly, 20-13 in overtime at Notre Dame on a dubious 4th and goal call that kept Stepfan Taylor out of the end zone to tie the game. At 12-0, No. 1 Notre Dame is heading to the national title.

Most important, though, 2012 has a great opportunity to do what the previous two never did: win a Pac-12 championship and qualify for the Rose Bowl. They had two previews last Saturday—the setting of the New Year’s Day game and their Pac-12 title game adversary, UCLA.

Jim Mora has led an unexpectedly stellar 2012 campaign out of Westwood. The Bruins are 9-3, won the South Division, and beat 10-2 Nebraska, the Big Ten’s most likely representative in the Rose Bowl. They have the 25th best offense in the nation, led by senior running back Jonathan Franklin, who has rushed for 1506 yards (8th in the nation), averaged 6.0 yards per play, and scored 11 touchdowns. Freshman quarterback Brett Hundley is no scrub either—3234 yards, 26 touchdowns, 10 interceptions.

Stanford was able to contain UCLA last week, but a few sports writers, such as the L.A. Times’s T.J. Simers, have expressed doubts about the Bruins’ genuine effort last week. If they had won the game, UCLA would have faced Oregon in the Pac-12 title, so UCLA’s conservative, unvaried play calls raised many a spectator’s eyebrow last week. For a dynamic offense, the Bruins ran the ball up straight up the middle unconventionally in many situations. David Shaw even said that this week will be “ten times harder” than last week.

Whether or not UCLA played up to its potential last week, the Cardinal’s game plan does not have to change much for them to have a good chance of a win. If they are able to contain Hundley—he was sacked seven times last week—half as well as they did last week, and the secondary plays decently, the Cardinal will likely see roses tossed from the end zone and claim a Pac-12 title banner for the first time since 1999.

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