State of Stanford: UCLA Week

Shayne Skov played a pre-injury caliber game

Amidst the delirium in Stanford's celebratory locker room following the team's landmark 17-14 win over Oregon, David Shaw ran into his quarterback and congratulated him with an elated "Good game!"

"Sorry about that fumble, coach," was Kevin Hogan's even-keeled reply.

Not too high, not too low: Stanford's new signal caller maintains an obsessive focus on improvement, even in the intermediate aftermath of what might have been the biggest win in the history of the Cardinal program. His overtime fumble, which he blamed on "getting a little lax when I shouldn't have," almost cost Jordan Williamson his subsequent game-sealing field goal attempt.

But left guard Khalil Wilkes recovered the loose ball after Hogan himself knocked it around in the violent scrum, and the mistake was rendered moot. Still, Shaw said that ball security is at the top of his team's improvement list heading into this Saturday's regular season finale at UCLA, particularly because the Cardinal have kicked it around a dangerous amount the past two weeks. The team's plus-11 turnover differential, a conference-best just 10 days ago, has been whittled down to plus-6.

Remarkably, Stanford has continued winning against elite teams in spite of these alarming turnover statistics. An epic Cardinal defensive effort held strong in the face of potentially devastating Kelsey Young and Stepfan Taylor cough-ups, setting the stage for Hogan the perfectionist to give the team another push toward the roses. Now, a win this Saturday moves Stanford to its first Pac-12 title game.

There's no question No. 8's eyes are glued to the prize. He was his usual, reserved, focused self at Tuesday's media meeting and in a Twitter exchange with former Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu, who encouraged Hogan to break his stern expression and crack a smile in interviews.

"Maybe in three games," Hogan replied. "All business until then, though."

Party in the Backfield Ties Record
The colorful personalities in Stanford's front seven have played around their constructed theme of the "Party in the Backfield" since the beginning of the season, motivating themselves around their common desire to corral opposing quarterbacks and bust up running plays behind the line of scrimmage. That devotion has shown up on the stat sheet in a historic way: after the official scorer retroactively credited Trent Murphy and Henry Anderson with two more sacks against Oregon, Stanford's defense tied the school's sack record of 46, set by the 1999 Rose Bowl team.

The mind-blowing part of this effort is the fact that the Farm Boys still potentially have three games to break this record and establish a near-untouchable new mark. The Cardinal's next opponent, UCLA, ranks 110th out of 120 FBS teams in pass protection, surrendering 3.4 sacks per game. With the Bruins possibly on the schedule for Stanford's next two games, a 60-sack party is not out of the realm of possibility. After all, the Cardinal are only 14 takedowns away.

Stanford now trails conference partner Arizona State by one sack on the season for the NCAA lead. The Cardinal maintain their lead in tackles for loss with 101, while the Pitchforks aren't far behind at 98.

At Tuesday's media meeting, Shaw again praised his defensive line's blue-collar work against Oregon. Stanford held the Ducks to their lowest home output (14) since 2006, when Arizona limited the Quack Attack to 10 points at Autzen Stadium. Current Ducks head coach Chip Kelly was still the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire then. Shaw said that a number of front seven stalwarts -- particularly Chase Thomas, Ben Gardner, Terrence Stephens, and David Parry -- sacrificed statistical glory to play within Stanford's ultimately successful defensive scheme. Call it "team defense."

He also credited defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who crafted a vital substitution pattern to keep his unit fresh against Oregon and has fine-tuned the Cardinal's defensive scheme beyond the fine work of his predecessors Vic Fangio and Jason Tarver.

"He's the first to raise his voice when [players are] doing something wrong," Shaw said. "He's also the first to raise his voice when they're doing something right."

Another Record in Danger
While Stanford's defense chases its sacks record, Stepfan Taylor will likely make school history on the offensive end against UCLA. Following his 169-yard performance at Oregon, Taylor now sits at 3,992 career rushing yards. That's only 41 shy of Darrin Nelson's all-time Stanford record of 4,033. The Bruins are giving up 147 rushing yards per game.

Taylor is also 108 yards shy of his own season record, set last year, of 1,330 yards. He's already surpassed his attempts mark, with 258 carries this year after receiving 242 hand-offs in 2011. With up to three games remaining, expect Taylor's final rushing numbers to soar higher.

"Everything about him says success," Shaw praised. "...[H]e is without a doubt the best pass protector in our conference."

A New Leading Tackler
With his nationally-recognized 10-tackle performance against Oregon, Shayne Skov has overtaken Chase Thomas for the Stanford team lead with 58 stops. Matters have been trending in the right direction in No. 11's long recovery to pre-injury condition. Shaw, in fact, said that Skov played his first pre-injury caliber game against Oregon, but that the linebacker's explosiveness is still improving.

Skov displayed excellent attacking range in space, often surprising the Ducks' speedsters, who obviously came into the game used to evading slower linebackers. Still, Skov rated his game performance only as "okay." Harsh judgment: he must be using his three-sack, four-TFL, 12-stop 2011 Orange Bowl performance as the standard for comparison.

Skov praised UCLA, whom Stanford likely must beat twice in a row to win its first conference championship since 2001. "They're greatly improved. Physical," he said. "[Doak Walker finalist Jonathan] Franklin is a great running back. [Joe] Fauria is a great tight end. [Quarterback] Brett Hundley is an incredibly talented freshman."

The Bruins, who share Stanford's 9-2 record, operate a balanced offense that is in the upper echelon of the Pac-12 in both rushing yardage and passing efficiency. UCLA's weakness is pass protection, while the defense finds itself in the middle of conference rankings: talented, opportunistic (15 interceptions), but occasionally porous.

Some Final Oregon Thoughts
Upon a third review of Stanford-Oregon film, it's clear that the Farm Boys controlled the tempo of the game. The Ducks flashed their typical flurry of control at the end of the second quarter and the start of the third -- when they scored all 14 of their points -- but the Cardinal weathered the storm and regained control down the stretch. The backbreaking moment, the one that most visiting teams suffer at Autzen Stadium, never came -- though Stanford appeared doomed a number of times. The most notable nail-biting moment came in the third quarter, when Kelsey Young fumbled in Oregon territory immediately after a Duck touchdown. Chip Kelly's squad, which had just gained its first lead on the previous offensive snap, was in position to tack on.

At that point, the wheels appeared to be coming off. But, remarkably, the Stanford defense held. Alejandro Maldonado's 42-yard field goal missed, and Shaw's club was in control for the rest of the contest.

Pep Hamilton's offense, which was stymied by turnovers and its own conservative playcalling for 10 straight possessions, finally displayed downfield aggressiveness when it absolutely had to in the fourth quarter. Hogan attacked vertically to Ertz, who caught the tying touchdown in a fashion that was emblematic of the whole game: he out-wrestled a much smaller Oregon defensive back for the football. Stanford's muscle had prevailed over the Ducks' quickness, despite a few bobbles along the way.

Stanford's New Home: The Rose Bowl?
Stanford may finish its season at the Rose Bowl, but there may be much more southern California sunshine on the horizon for the team. The Cardinal can theoretically play their final three games at Pasadena's iconic stadium, starting with this Saturday's regular season finale against UCLA.

While a Stanford win would send the following Friday's Pac-12 title game back to Palo Alto against the very same Bruins, a Cardinal loss opens up a new realm of possibilities. If Oregon State defeats Oregon in the Civil War game that should be finished by the time Stanford kicks off, a UCLA win will require the Farm Boys to return to the Rose Bowl next Friday for the title game. A win in that one would, of course, translate to New Years Day in -- again -- the Rose Bowl.

Of course, all is rendered moot if Oregon wins the Civil War (noon kickoff). In that case, Stanford will be forced to beat UCLA to stave off Pac-12 North elimination.

In sum, a Cardinal win automatically means a Pac-12 title game back on the Farm and a second Final Walk for the club's seniors. But if the Ducks slip for the second week in a row, this weekend's Stanford-UCLA game will simply be a battle for home field advantage in the Pac-12 title game to be played six days later.

"All we're going to concentrate on and talk about is this game, this week," Shaw said. "I love the way my staff is built right now. We have some NFL guys who know how to prepare to play a team twice in one year."

Redemption
Shaw said Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson was "looking forward" to his game-winning field goal attempt, despite his struggles since last season's Fiesta Bowl nightmare.

"He was eager," the coach said. "He wanted another shot [after missing his first kick in the fourth quarter]. I don't think we can even measure [how important that last kick was]."

Interestingly, Williamson said he had an unusual number of people telling him the Oregon game was going to come down to him in the preceding week. He started to tear up when he received the game ball and the Stanford locker room chanted his name following the Oregon win.

Williamson, who still wears Fiesta Bowl gear everywhere he goes because it reminds him of the tough times he's been through, found his supportive father immediately after the game.

"I saw my dad after the game and gave him a hug," Williamson said. "That was a huge moment for me."

One Weekend, Three Nation-Leading Streaks End; All Involving Stanford
After Stanford women's basketball ended Baylor's 42-game win streak on Friday night, Shaw told his team the score during its pregame movie night at the hotel on the eve of its showdown with Oregon. The room erupted in cheers.

Less than 24 hours later, the Cardinal ended the Ducks' 13-game run, which was the longest football streak in the nation. Remember, the Quack Attack beat Stanford 53-30 the previous year to end the Cardinal's 17-game nation-best win streak, so Saturday's win exacted a good bit of revenge.

One day later, the Stanford men's basketball team put its nation-leading eight game win streak on the line. This time, the Farm Boys came out on the losing end. Their run was snapped in a 70-62 home loss to Belmont.

Whenever one school is involved in the breaking of three nation-ending streaks in one weekend (on the good end or on the bad end), one thing is clear: the Athletic Department is doing something right.


David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.


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