Week 12: Pac-12 Bleeding Cardinal and True Blue

Just when everything seemed clear, the Pac-12 took another crazy turn, as did the national title picture.  Blame it on Waco and Palo Alto.

I. Conference Craziness

At the beginning of the season (see Week 1 Blog), I stated that you would have to be crazy to pick anyone other than Oregon and USC to represent the North and South divisions in the conference championship game.  Only someone from a mental institution in Armenia would do such a thing.

Chalk one up for the Hye Psychos.  UCLA has won the South, and Stanford controls its destiny in the North.

Stanford 17, Oregon 14 (OT):  As former USC QB Shane Foley always says, this is why we play the games.

Stanford entered this game as a 20.5-point underdog, and for good reason:

  • Oregon had won 13 in a row.
  • Oregon had scored at least 42 points in each of those victories.
  • Stanford had squeaked out five of their eight wins this season by a touchdown or less.
  • Oregon had defeated Stanford the past two seasons by nearly identical scores of 52-31 and 53-30.
  • Oregon was playing at home, with a direct path to the national championship on the line.

In other words, all the stars had aligned for Oregon.

That’s when Stanford decided to pull an eclipse.

Just when you thought Oregon had finally broken the Stanford jinx, the Cardinal did it to them again — and of all the head-scratchingly painful losses the Ducks have suffered at the hands of the Trees over the past 25 years (13-10 in 1987 with Brad Muster, 28-21 in 1995 in Eugene, 27-24 in Palo Alto in 1996, 49-42 in 2001 denying Oregon a national championship shot), this one had to hurt the most.  This was the best Oregon team of all time!  They were the most stacked offensive unit in the country, and in addition, they had a competitive defense.

Stanford, meanwhile, had no Andrew Luck, no Toby Gerhart, no Jim Harbaugh, and no realistic chance to win this game.  Like last year when USC strolled into Autzen, I saw virtually no way for the visitors to escape with a win.  In fact, I couldn’t formulate a way Stanford could even stay close.  Their QB was starting just his third game.  Stanford had escaped with a win over Oregon State at home the previous week despite four turnovers.  Arizona had torched the Cardinal earlier in the season for 48 points in regulation.  Oregon had everything to play for and had won nine of the last ten in the series.  This could not happen.  Oregon could not let it happen.  Oregon would not let it happen.

It happened.

How did it happen??  After looking at the stat line, it still doesn’t add up!  I am as confused as this guy:

Stanford turned it over three times to just once for the Ducks.  All the other statistical categories were basically even.  Since I am not Greta, I cannot demystify things I do not understand.  For lack of a better idea, I suppose I can try to point to a couple of game-changing plays that made the difference:

  • Stanford stopped Oregon on two critical 4th down plays, while the Cardinal converted on 4th and 1 with two minutes to play to keep themselves alive.
  • Stanford fought Oregon to a draw in the running game.
  • You die by the replay (Stanford at Notre Dame), you live by the replay.  In this game, Zach Ertz’s touchdown reception was originally ruled incomplete, but was overturned to give the Cardinal the tie with 90 seconds to go.
  • Jordan Williamson missed one field goal for Stanford, but also made one in overtime.  Alejandro Maldon-uh-oh missed both of his attempts for Oregon.

If you can figure it out, you’re welcome to explain it to me.  The best I can offer is that Stanford decided to honor the 23rd anniversary of the Roger game by renewing its hex on Oregon.  For those of you who do not know this story, you’re in for a treat.

Flash back to 1989.  Stanford, at the tail end of a decade of mediocrity, is facing Oregon and falls behind 17-0 with about eight minutes to play.  Uncle Roger is so disgusted that he gives up on the game and refuses to listen to the end of it.  Sitting in the car at In-N-Out Burger, yours truly cannot believe what he is hearing.  How can you give up on your own team?!  While Roger dismisses the result as a foregone conclusion, I listen even more intently, hoping for a miracle.

As father and son finish their pre-game meal (we are heading for the Rose Bowl to watch UCLA play Michigan), Stanford finally gets on the board to make it 17-7.  Approaching the Arroyo Seco, the Cardinal scores again and adds a two point conversion to make it 17-15 with a few seconds to play.  Still, the comeback attempt is bound to fall short, because the onside kick never works when the opponent knows it’s coming.

But this is Stanford vs. Oregon, so of course it does work, and suddenly Stanford is in position for a field goal if they can get just a few more yards.  By this point I am delirious, screaming wildly at my father, who is talking outside with long time friend Tom Charbonneau in the tailgate area.  Uncle Roger had mentally refused to accept the idea that Stanford could (much less would) come back in the game.  I remained adamant.  I had not given up on the game, and would teach my dad a lesson in loyalty and perseverance if it was the last thing I did.

Stanford picked up the necessary yardage and lined up for a medium-range field goal with five seconds to play.  I yelled the proceedings to my disbelieving father, who remained unrepentant to the end.  But that only made it sweeter when the Cardinal sent the kick up and GOOD to stun Oregon 18-17 in the most personally satisfying victory of my pre-UCLA life.

For Ducks fans, the “Roger Game” had to be the most revolting Oregon loss to Stanford in the history of the series.  That is until last Saturday.  This time, my dad believed in Stanford.  Call it Roger’s Revenge if you like.  I guess it’s my turn to scratch my head.

UCLA 38, USC 28:  I have tried to be objective.  I have tried to exercise self-restraint.  I have attempted to report fairly throughout the season.

Screw that.  This game rocked.

After years of futility against the Trojans, UCLA came out smoking.  USC won the toss and elected to receive — a decision that made no sense to me then, and still makes no sense to me now — and promptly saw Matt Barkley throw an interception on the first play from scrimmage, leading to a 7-0 lead barely one minute into the game.

The next twenty minutes were a blur.  USC punted, UCLA scored a field goal.  Marqise Lee fumbled, UCLA scored a touchdown.  The Trojans turned it over on downs, UCLA scored another touchdown.

I said last week that this wouldn’t be no 50-0 game.  I didn’t consider the possibility that it could be 50-0 Bruins.

It wasn’t.  USC had too much talent to get overrun.  Despite being down 24-0 before the second quarter was halfway completed, I knew the game was far from over, and I told the two SC fans sitting next to me as much.  By halftime the Trojans had cut the deficit to 24-14, and you knew things were going to get interesting.

The overcast skies that had encircled the stadium before the start of the game began to release their precipitation in earnest.  By the time the bands had finished their halftime shows, the field was soaking wet, as was my UCLA jersey.  I didn’t care.  I had brought a jacket and a cap, but didn’t want to wear them.  This was football weather, and this was a football game.

I warned David Calkins, who was sitting next to me watching his first game at the Rose Bowl since the Cade McNown era, that ball control would be the critical determinant in the second half.  Sure enough, on the first play from scrimmage, Brett Hundley’s pass to Jordon James was dropped.  Two plays later, both Hundley AND Johnathan Franklin lost the handle.  With the ball bouncing unpredictably backwards in the rain, George Uko finally recovered in the end zone.  Touchdown!  USC was right back in the game at 24-20.

The stage was set for a classic finish.  Would the Trojans come all the way back to win their sixth in a row against UCLA in dramatic fashion?  Or would the Bruins turn the momentum in time to reclaim the Victory Bell?

The Bruins scored the next big play when Eric Kendricks partially blocked a USC punt, setting up a short field that led to a touchdown and a 31-20 lead.  Andre Heidari later missed a 44-yard field goal for the Trojans, and when the same Eric Kendricks made another huge play by intercepting Barkley with 11:49 remaining, it looked as though UCLA had the game in hand.

But this is a rivalry game, and things are rarely so simple.  The Trojans forced another UCLA punt, and within two minutes, Marqise Lee had scored.  Add a two-point conversion by Robert Woods and bingo: 31-28 UCLA with 7:22 to go.

Only twice since 2000 had the Cross Town Rivalry been this exciting so late in the game.  The Bruins held 23-point favorite USC to a 29-24 decision in 2004, and won the epic defensive battle 13-9 in 2006.  The other nine contests in that span were double-digit victories for the Trojans, who were clearly the superior team each year (as well as in 2004 and 2006).

But those UCLA teams did not have Brett Hundley at the helm, nor Jim Mora on the sidelines.  Those UCLA teams are not this UCLA team — and this UCLA team is different.

With the game in the balance, Hundley blithely directed a knockout 9-play, 83-yard touchdown drive, highlighted by a critical conversion on 3rd and 13 to Joe Fauria.  Johnathan Franklin sealed the game with his 29-yard scamper to provide the final margin of victory, and in so doing, caused the Rose Bowl to erupt in ecstasy — or head for the tunnels in shock.

I have not been to a UCLA game this exciting since 2006, and more significantly, I have not felt like this at a UCLA-USC game since 1998 (the last time the Bruins were stronger than the Trojans). The reason: this victory was not a fluke.  The better team won.  I can hardly believe I’m saying that, but as my USC friends have agreed, there’s no reason to hold back for the sake of objectivity.

On the other hand, let’s not get carried away here.  Shane and I agreed that the team that committed fewer turnovers and wanted it more would win this game.  UCLA scored the victory because they won the turnover battle (3 to 1) and took advantage of USC mistakes in all three phases of the game, including a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked field goal.  It would be easy to say, given the result, that UCLA wanted it more, but that would downplay the fact that USC came back from a 24-0 deficit to close within 31-28.  USC showed fight right to the final whistle.

And yet…I must say, if the body language of the players was any indication, UCLA definitely wanted this game more.  The Bruins were flying to the football and making plays with abandon.  Even when USC was mounting its comeback, the Trojan sideline could not match the emotion of the UCLA sideline.  The atmosphere of this game was unlike any I have seen before in this rivalry.  From the outset, something felt strange, awkward, uneasy.  Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps it was the early start time, perhaps it was the dampened excitement due to the unmet expectations of the preseason #1 team; but whatever it was, I never sensed USC was quite ready for this game.  Lane Kiffin, in a moment of remarkable clarity, echoed this exact sentiment in his post game interview.  I’ll leave it to others to figure out how one’s team cannot be ready to play against its rival with the conference championship on the line.

Regardless of how you spin it, this was a monumental victory for UCLA, which now runs its record to an almost unimaginably good 9-2, far surpassing expectations.  On the flip side, USC drops its third game out of four to fall to 7-4.  As Kiffin stated, this USC team has too much talent to have that many losses.  Yet his job is not in jeopardy, as AD Pat Haden confirmed earlier in the week that he is 150% behind Kiffin.  Such strong support following an obviously subpar season is a bit surprising, but credit Haden for being forthright.  Time will tell if this victory was a high water mark for UCLA, or the beginning of a string of dominance not seen in Westwood since the 1990’s.

Speaking of which: this game also preserved one of the most important distinctions in the series.  With a win, Barkley would have become only the second quarterback to have led his team to victory four straight times as the starter.  As it stands, Cade McNown remains the only player to have accomplished that feat.  Could Brett Hundley duplicate his success?  We shall see.

By the way, if anyone out there in cyberspace has a tape of this game, please let me know.  Something tells me I might enjoy watching it again.  Not to mention:

No, I won’t be receiving an income tax refund from Uncle Wayne, but the $20 I’ll be collecting will be considerably more satisfying.

Oregon State 62, Cal 14:  Turn out the lights, Jeff Tedford.  There is nothing particularly noteworthy about this game per se.  The two questions of interest now: will Tedford get fired?  (Answer: yes; already happened.)  Also, will Oregon State parlay its 5-0 record at Reser Stadium this season and momentum from such a dominating victory into an upset over the Ducks this Saturday?  (Answer: I doubt it, but stranger things have happened.)

Arizona 34, Utah 24:  No bowl game for you, Utes.  Trailing 24-17 entering the fourth quarter, the Wildcats finished the game with 17 unanswered points to send Utah to its first losing season since 2002.  It ain’t easy playing in the Pac-12, is it, Kyle Wittingham?  Important win for U of A.

Arizona State 46, Stupid Washington State 7:  Jeesh.  1 for 16 on third downs?  19 rushes for one yard?  Outgained 561 to 241?  It’s so easy to make WSU look so bad.  ASU becomes bowl eligible and sets up an interesting Duel in the Desert with rival Arizona this weekend.  As for WSU…what exactly is interesting about this team?

Washington 38, Colorado 3:  Yes, you won, Washington, but it was against Colorado so you don’t get your school color highlighted in the result.  The takeaways from this game: UW will improve to 8-4 with a win over WSU next Saturday.  Meanwhile Colorado will have to defeat Utah on Friday to avoid the worst record in school history and their first winless season at home since 1920.  Yikes.

II. Upcoming Events

UCLA has now clinched the Pac-12 South and will face either Stanford or Oregon in the conference title game.  Unfortunately, the Bruins have one game remaining (thanks a lot, scheduler) against — Stanford.  Not good.  If Oregon defeats Oregon State on Saturday, the Cardinal have to win against the Bruins to make it to the championship game, which means that Stanford will be more motivated than UCLA.

Therefore, I am hoping the Beavers upset the Ducks.  If they do, Stanford will be guaranteed a spot in the championship game, and UCLA-Stanford will be for home field advantage in the rematch.  Both teams will then have clinched a berth before the game, giving no intangibles advantage to Stanford.

Oregon at Oregon State:  Many scenarios are possible, so let me break them down.

  • The best thing that can happen (as far as the conference is concerned) is to have Oregon win this game, and to have Stanford win against UCLA.  In that case, Oregon will almost certainly make it to a BCS bowl as an at-large team, while the Bruins and Cardinal will face off for the Rose Bowl appearance.
  • An even better scenario would be for Oregon to win and for UCLA to defeat Stanford, allowing Oregon to host the conference championship against the Bruins.  If Oregon wins that game and USC upends Notre Dame, the Ducks could very possibly get into the national championship game as the best one-loss team.
  • Finally, Oregon State could upset the Ducks, giving the Beavers a chance to break into the BCS bowls for the first time in a decade.  With a 10-2 record there is a fairly reasonable chance Oregon State could qualify.  I wouldn’t bank on a Beaver victory, though.

Stanford at UCLA:  Why oh why did this game have to come AFTER the UCLA-USC game?  Blame everything on Notre Dame and/or the Pac-12 scheduler.  From now on, Notre Dame should never be scheduled as the last game of the season for USC.  The Cross Town Rivalry must be the final game.  Notre Dame is not part of the Pac-12, and an intersectional battle should not take precedence over UCLA-USC.  Period.  Notre Dame even forced Stanford-Cal to be scheduled in October, leaving the Bears with no more games.  Ridiculous!

As for the Cardinal vs. the Bruins, this could be the anticlimax bowl, or it could actually mean something.  It depends on Oregon vs. Oregon State, as mentioned above.  If OSU wins, both teams would already be in the conference championship game, which makes the game on Saturday much less interesting.  If Oregon wins, the game means much more to Stanford than to UCLA.  No wonder the odds makers are confused.  UCLA opened as a 1.5 point favorite; Stanford is now a 2 point favorite.  Bottom line: who knows what’s going to happen?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Arizona State at Arizona:  An important game for state supremacy and bowl pecking order.  Right now Arizona looks like a slightly better team, but I wouldn’t be overly surprised if the Sun Devils pull it out.

Utah at Colorado:  The “I’m Going Nowhere” Bowl actually might be very hotly contested.  Colorado is playing for pride, while Utah is playing for revenge.  Remember, it was Colorado who knocked the Utes out of the Pac-12 championship game last season by upsetting Utah in Salt Lake City.

Washington at Washington State:  Hmm.  2-9 hosts 7-4.  7-4 hasn’t been impressive or overpowering, but 2-9 has been awful.  On the other hand, it’s a rivalry game, and it’s at Pullman.  You might want to watch this if you’re a fan of the unpredictable.

Notre Dame at USC:  There are several intriguing subplots to this game.  Can the Irish make it to the national championship?  Will USC have enough motivation to knock them out of it?  There is no doubt that USC has the talent to win this game, especially at home, but Notre Dame’s defense has been excellent the entire year.  With Matt Barkley out, Senior Day will have a bittersweet feeling for the Trojan faithful.  In a year that has seen the Trojans dramatically underperform, can they finally put everything together, avoid mistakes on offense, and actually win a game against a good team?  Saturday will be their last chance to salvage the season.  Lose a fifth game, and the whispers that this team was the worst preseason #1 in history will turn to shouts.

III. National Notes

A few final thoughts before closing.  I have the Turkey Tussle to play in two hours and want to get this out before I leave to set up.

  • Florida State defeated Maryland to move to 10-1, but they have no chance at the title game due to their extremely weak strength of schedule.  The ACC is not a top conference.
  • Michigan moves to 8-3 after defeating hapless Iowa 42-17.  Can the Wolverines stop Ohio State from going undefeated?
  • Florida defeated FCS Jacksonville State, but only 23-0.  Do the Gators have ANY offense?
  • South Carolina was tied 7-7 with mighty Wofford.  In the 4th quarter.  Who cares what the final score was?
  • Clemson gave up 48 points to North Carolina State but still won by two touchdowns.  This is college football in 2012.
  • Texas A&M took a 47-7 lead over Sam Houston State before coasting in the 4th quarter.  Amazingly, freshman QB Johnny Manziel now becomes the Heisman favorite.  Could this be the year the freshman jinx is broken for the Stiff Arm?
  • Ohio State topped Wisconsin 21-14 in overtime to move to 11-0.  The Buckeye brass decided not to self-impose their bowl ban last year (instead of this year) because…?
  • Notre Dame dumped Wake Forest 38-0, playing their most complete game of the year, to move to within one victory of the national championship game.  The Irish will be focused at USC; can the Trojans match their intensity?
  • Utah State, playing at tricky Ruston, LA, took a 24-point lead over Louisiana Tech, only to give it all away — then reclaim the victory in overtime, 48-41.  The WAC is stacked this year, with both of these teams at 9-2 along with…
  • San Jose State, who defeated BYU 20-14.  When was the last time the conference had three teams at 9-2?  Has it ever happened?  One thing is for sure: it won’t happen again, as the WAC will be no more after this season.
  • Oklahoma went on the road to play West Virginia, and once again, the Mountaineer defense just couldn’t get the job done.  Oklahoma scored the winning touchdown with 24 seconds to play to escape with a 50-49 decision.  Geno Smith may still be the #1 QB taken in the NFL draft, but oh, his Heisman chances.  Thanks a lot, defense.
  • With a final score of Vanderbilt 41, Tennessee 18, Derek Dooley cannot get out of Konxville fast enough, nor can the Vols get rid of him quickly enough.  A miserable three years for Vols fans — or four, if you include the Lane Kiffin saga.
  • Kansas State had everything in front of them: win at Baylor and at home against Texas, and the Wildcats would finally play for the national title, while Collin Klein would win the school’s first Heisman.  But after giving up 580 yards on defense and throwing three interceptions on offense, those dreams are all but gone after a 52-24 beatdown.  Like I said: blame it on Waco (Kansas State) and Palo Alto (Oregon) for mucking up the BCS picture.
  • From the undefeated to the winless: Southern Mississippi extended its misery by falling to UTEP, 34-33, when their two-point conversion attempt was intercepted in the end zone with under three minutes to play.  Once more I ask: how does a 12-2 team in 2011 go to 0-11 in 2012?

Let me know if you can answer that question.  I haven’t been able to figure out many others this wacky season.

–Mr. G.

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