Played at the 65,000-seat Alamodome in San Antonio, Tex., the Valero Alamo Bowl is one of the most prestigious non-BCS bowls in college football. It has drawn a crowd of 60,000-plus in six of its last eight years. It has produced eight of the 20 most-watched bowl games in ESPN broadcast history. San Antonio, the seventh largest city in the nation, overflows with rich history and deep tradition.
But as great as that sounds, San Antonio is not where the Cardinal wants to be come Dec. 29. In fact, Stanford doesn’t even want to play on that day.
The Cardinal dreams a bigger dream: the Rose Bowl.
Tonight, that dream will be either made or broken as No. 8 Stanford (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) hosts No. 16 UCLA (9-3, 6-3) in the Pac-12 Championship Game, with the winner automatically advancing to the prestigious Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Virtually written off by the media in the preseason, the Cardinal is now in position to claim its first berth to the Granddaddy of Them All since the 1999-2000 season and its first conference title since the Pac-10 became the Pac-12.
“I remember when nobody was giving us a look down at the Pac-12 media day,” said outside linebacker Chase Thomas, who was named a finalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy on Thursday. “I guess people out there just don’t get it. They don’t understand what type of guys we have on this team. The kinds of coaches we have. We’re not going away.”
Tonight’s conference championship is a rematch of the game played at the Rose Bowl Stadium just six days ago, when the Cardinal clobbered the Bruins 35-17. However, head coach David Shaw expects a much stiffer test the second time around.
“I except [UCLA] to give us everything,” said Shaw, the Pac-12 coach of the year for the second straight season. “I expect this to be a very tough, physical game. It’s going to be hard; it’s going to be 10 times harder than last week’s game was.
“It’s really hard to beat a team twice, in particular back-to-back weeks. You have to fight complacency. They’re going to come back with a chip on their shoulders. They’re coming back faster, stronger and better. ”
If Stanford hopes to punch its ticket to Pasadena, its suffocating defense will have to continue its take-no-prisoners attitude and play that has carried the team all season. The front seven had its weekly party in the backfield last Saturday against the Bruins, holding Doak Walker Award finalist Jonathan Franklin to a season-low 3.1 yards per carry and taking down quarterback Brett Hundley behind the line of scrimmage seven times.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Cardinal defense is ranked first in the nation in run defense (71.33 yards per game), sacks (4.42 per game) and tackles for loss (9.25 per game). The unit is also among the top 15 in scoring defense (16.92 points per game) and third-down defensive efficiency (29.53 percent).
While Bruins head coach Jim Mora repeatedly shot down speculation that his team had tanked the game last Saturday — consciously or subconsciously — the Cardinal is prepared to see new wrinkles of UCLA’s offense.
“[UCLA] probably has some tricks up their sleeves that we didn’t see,” said outside linebacker Trent Murphy, who was an All-Pac-12 first team selection. “We’ll definitely go back to see what worked best for them in the game, and I’m sure they’ll try new things, especially against an opponent they’re playing two weeks in a row.”
Hundley’s scrambling abilities in particular have yet to be displayed in full force. The redshirt freshman’s 38-yard scramble near the end of the third quarter last Saturday gave a glimpse of the damage his feet can inflict. Stanford’s defenders observed firsthand how slippery Hundley can be.
“[Hundley] has a great first step,” Thomas commented. “He usually makes the first guy miss. I know he made me miss twice [on Saturday], but what our defense does do is corral to the quarterback. Both times when someone missed, we still ended up with the sack. We had guys coming after him, harassing him.”
The offensive line, which ranks in the nation’s bottom five in both sacks (3.58 per game) and tackles for loss (8.00 per game) allowed, did no favors for UCLA’s offensive weapons in round one. Hundley had to work miracles in the pocket just to keep plays alive, and Franklin rarely saw openings when he touched the ball.
Another dangerous playmaker that the Cardinal secondary needs to lock down on tonight is tight end Joseph Fauria. The 6-foot-7, 255-pound redshirt senior was especially effective early in last Saturday’s game, hauling in a 17-yard first-quarter touchdown despite tight coverage from cornerback Alex Carter. Fauria and his obvious threat in the passing game have garnered a heap of praise from Shaw, who drew parallels between the Bruins star and Stanford’s own tall tight end, Levine Toilolo.
Having won 19 of its last 20 home games, Stanford is also riding an eight-game home win streak into tonight. Much of the Cardinal’s late-season momentum can be attributed to the dual-threat capability of quarterback Kevin Hogan. After efficiently completing 15-of-22 passes for 160 yards and a score six days ago, the redshirt freshman hopes to lead his team to victory over a ranked opponent for the fourth consecutive week.
“We’re moving the ball well right now and putting some points on the board,” Hogan said. “I’m hoping we can continue that on Friday night.”
Running back Stepfan Taylor only needed a little over two quarters to rush for 142 yards on 20 carries in his previous encounter with the Bruins, but should carry a heavier load in round two tonight. The senior tailback, just 35 yards shy of Darrin Nelson’s all-time Stanford record, is etching his legacy even deeper as the season closes, averaging 139 yards in his last three games against some of the best defenses in the conference.
The Cardinal has stayed remarkably healthy this season but will be missing punter Daniel Zychlinski, who was wrecked by Bruins linebacker Anthony Barr last Saturday. While the fifth-year senior has excelled in handing opponents poor field position all year, backup punter Ben Rhyne is more than ready to step up. Senior wideout and punt returner Drew Terrell was shaken up last weekend and did not re-enter the game, but Shaw says that he is “fired up and ready to go” for tonight.
Three weeks ago, a reporter asked Taylor after the Oregon State game what playing one more game at Stanford Stadium would mean to him.
Not realizing that his team would earn the right to host the Pac-12 Championship Game if it won out, the captain replied, “I would love to play here [again]; it’s our stadium. But I don’t know how we can. I mean, can we?”
Two statement wins later, Taylor had answered his own question.
“Getting one more game is special for those guys,” Shaw said. “They’re real excited about it. I think you get an idea of what our team is like because our younger guys are excited for our seniors. It’s not just that they’re excited to be in the game. They’re excited that the seniors get to come in the stadium one more time. I think that shows how tight of a team we are.”
Stanford and UCLA clash for Pac-12 supremacy tonight at 5 p.m., with national broadcast on FOX. The Rose Bowl awaits the winner.