Week 13: Rivalries Shape the Bowl Picture

While two games determined the Pac-12 conference championship participants, several other games around the nation determined which teams would represent their conferences in bowl games.  Let’s catch up on the action from Rivalry Week.

I. Pac(k)in’ Up: Stanford Earns Title Game Berth

Stanford 35, UCLA 17:  The Bruins lost for the fourth time in a row to Stanford, something which has not happened since 1931.  The Cardinal tallied seven sacks on QB Brett Hundley, had an effective running game, and held UCLA to zero first downs in the second quarter.  Furthermore, Stanford played with energy and purpose; UCLA did not.

Am I upset?  Not at all.  On the contrary: I am delighted.

Let’s be clear.  With Oregon defeating Oregon State earlier in the day, Stanford had to win in order to play in the conference championship.  Meanwhile, as several sports websites pointed out, UCLA had nothing to play for after Oregon’s win.  The Bruins had already sewn up the South division and would play at Stanford or at Oregon for the Pac-12 title.

Let’s see…would I rather play at Stanford Stadium in front of a sparse, unenthusiastic crowd, or at Autzen Stadium in front of a raucous, packed house?

Translation (I): not only did UCLA have nothing to play for on Saturday, but in fact, it was in the best interest of the team NOT to win (as ridiculous as that sounds).  Simply put, Stanford is an easier opponent than Oregon.  I’m not saying Stanford is an easy opponent — they did defeat Oregon, after all — but given a choice, I’ll take this Stanford team over the Ducks any day of the week.  Including Friday.

To his credit, Coach Mora said the right things, suggesting that UCLA was playing to win.  “If we were holding something back, we wouldn’t have had our starters in there at the end.”  Good sales pitch, coach, but I ain’t buying it.  He knew something was “off” during the game, and wondered (aloud) why during the press conference.  Linebacker Anthony Barr provided some of the answer: “Our energy and demeanor was down today. I don’t know why, but we need to have more energy.”

Allow me to complete the picture, Mr. Barr.  UCLA had no incentive to win.  When you have no incentive — or, as I pointed out, you actually have negative incentive — your energy level deteriorates.  I don’t care what anyone says: you cannot play with the same passion and excitement, no matter who your opponent is, if it is in your best interest not to win!

I have been to dozens of UCLA games in my life, but this was the first time I can remember actually hoping my team would not win, even against our third biggest rival.  Blame it on conference expansion if you will, but if I wasn’t up for this game, you know for certain the rest of the team wasn’t up for it either.  Everyone knows that this Friday’s game is the one that counts for UCLA.  Stanford had to win last Saturday to play in it; UCLA had to lose in order to avoid playing Oregon.  Simple as that.

If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll listen to Stanford coach David Shaw, who said of this week’s rematch: “I expect them to give us everything. I expect this to be a very tough, physical game. It’s going to be 10 times harder than [Saturday’s] game was. We’re going to get their best shot.”

Translation (II): he knew full well he didn’t get UCLA’s “best shot” last Saturday.  The fans knew it, and so did the players.  You want to call that an excuse?  Go right ahead.  I don’t care what you call it.  All I know is this: as I was watching the game at the Rose Bowl with UCLA alum and season ticket holder (not to mention fellow football fanatic) Kenny Phillips, something remarkable happened.

During the second quarter, Kenny fell asleep.  Nuff said.

I should give Stanford some credit.  With the victory, they have three straight 10-win seasons for the first time ever.  Since taking over for Josh Nunes, QB Kevin Hogan has guided the Cardinal to wins over three straight ranked opponents — another first for the program.  David Shaw was just honored as Pac-12 Coach of the Year.  And if the Cardinal win on Friday, they will be headed to their third straight BCS game, a remarkable turnaround for a program that went 1-11 in 2006.

But if you’re going to tell me that Stanford played the “real” UCLA on Saturday, forget it.  We’ll see the real Bruins on Friday in Palo Alto (which brings up another reason I wanted Stanford to win: I’ll be at the conference championship game).  If Stanford wins THAT game, then yes, they really are the better team.  You can bet I won’t be falling asleep during the second quarter.

Oregon 48, Oregon State 24:  Oregon State kept it close for a half, trailing just 20-17 early in the third quarter, but it was all Ducks thereafter.  Oregon did not need any help to win this game, but the Beavers gave it to them anyway, turning the ball over six times.  Still, Oregon State has had a very good season, and should finish 9-3 with a good bowl bid to come.  Oregon, for their part, can only kick themselves after the Stanford loss, which cost them first a national championship bid, and now a possible Rose Bowl appearance.  Cursed Cardinal!

II. Rest of the Pac

Mercifully, Cal had completed its season last weekend.

Stupid Washington State 31, Washington 28 (OT):  It’s about time I nailed a prediction.  Last week I stated that you might want to watch this game if you were a fan of the unpredictable.

WSU trailed 28-10 in the fourth quarter.  Game over, right?  Not so fast.  The Cougars, who had rushed for only three touchdowns the entire season, matched that total in this game, including two short TD runs in the fourth quarter to pull within 28-25.  With 1:59 to play, Andrew Furney connected on a 45-yard field goal to tie the score.  Despite the crowd going hysterical, UW calmly marched down the field to the WSU 15 facing a simple 3rd and 1, but the Huskies were flagged for a false start — the 18th (!!) UW penalty of the game — and when they failed to convert, Travis Coons came on to attempt a 35-yarder with five seconds remaining to win the game.

And then…and then…oh, just watch this:

That collective scream you hear at the 12:52 mark is the scream of a fan base that has snapped an eight game losing streak, and a three year losing streak to its rival.  This was a 2-9 team that defeated its 7-4 older brother.  This is why nothing, NOTHING, can match college football when it comes to American sports passion.

Was that unpredictable enough for you?

Arizona State 41, Arizona 34:  Not to be outdone, the battle for the Territorial Cup featured another 4th quarter explosion, this time propelling Arizona State to a 41-34 decision over Arizona in Tuscon.  Generally you win when you rack up 36 first downs and 522 total yards, but four costly turnovers and a blocked punt did in the Wildcats, who led 27-17 entering the final period before getting blitzed by 24 unanswered points.  With the win the Sun Devils move to 7-5, while Arizona also finishes a very respectable 7-5.  Both teams are headed for bowl games.

Utah 42, Colorado 35:  A third outstanding game on the conference slate featured one more 4th quarter comeback, this time by the Utes, who trailed 28-20 after three but outscored the Buffaloes 22-7 in the final frame.  The best post-game quote comes from Utah coach Kyle Whittingham: “I can’t for the life of me figure out why they kicked to Reggie Dunn.  But we’re glad they did.”

For those who aren’t aware, Reggie Dunn is the NCAA record holder for 100-yard kickoff returns.  He plays for Utah.  He had returned four kickoffs in his career for touchdowns.  The score was tied 35-35 when Colorado kicked off to Reggie Dunn.

Reggie Dunn ran it back 100 yards for a touchdown.

Goodbye Jon Embree.

Notre Dame 22, USC 13:  Perhaps we could say that Notre Dame won this game 5 to 2 — that is, five field goals to two.  The Trojans kept the Irish out of the end zone for the final three quarters, but 22 points was enough to propel Notre Dame to its first undefeated regular season since 1988, and a berth in the national championship game in Miami.  Meanwhile, Max Wittek played reasonably well in relief of Matt Barkley, despite his two interceptions.  But some questionable game management decisions will have Trojan fans scratching their heads once again, wondering if Lane Kiffin learned those skills in a correspondence course.

Next week, in the final blog, I will assign grades for all 12 teams in the conference.  Cal, USC, and Colorado fans won’t enjoy my critiques at all.  Utah and Washington fans won’t like them much.  The Arizona schools will do fine, and I will show some mercy for Stupid WSU.  Oregon and Stanford will get some love, and I might even cut my Bruins some slack.  Finally, Oregon State fans will rejoice in the fact that I am delighted with their season.  David Shaw may have been selected by the conference as Coach of the Year, but I probably would have given the nod to either Jim Mora Jr. or Mike Riley.  As I’ve said before, so I say again: no one does more with less than the Head Beaver Coach.

III. Conference Championship Preview

Before last Saturday’s game, Cousin Adam predicted that Stanford would win the first game in the Rose Bowl, but UCLA would win the rematch in Palo Alto.  The reason?  It’s hard to beat the same team twice in one season.

I’m not entirely sure I buy that logic.  Stanford is going to use the identical game plan they have used all season: run the ball, and stop the run (Stanford leads the NATION in run defense at 71 yards per game).  If it worked once against UCLA, there’s no reason it can’t work a second time.  Adam also pointed out that Stanford looked like the more physical team on Saturday, and in fact, the Bruin players agreed.  So does that make Friday’s result a foregone conclusion?

Hardly.  As I stated earlier, we’ll see the real UCLA on Friday.  The forecast calls for “tons of rain” despite mild 65 degree temperatures.  Generally that favors run-oriented teams like Stanford, but then again, UCLA won its most important game of the season vs. USC in a rain storm.  I would also point out that Kevin Hogan went 15-for-22 with no interceptions against the Bruins, while UCLA turned it over twice and had 12 crippling penalties.  Stanford is not going to play as well as they did on Saturday, and UCLA will not play as badly (certainly the Bruins are not going to give away a touchdown on a fumbled kickoff return).  I expect the game to be low scoring and tight all the way through, unless one team makes a catastrophic error.  If it comes down to the kicking game, the edge goes to UCLA; otherwise, Stanford has a slight advantage playing at home.

All things considered, the team that makes fewer mistakes should win this game.  Stanford fumbled four times last Saturday but lost only one.  They can’t rely on that ratio holding up again.  Stanford’s strength is its defense; UCLA’s strength is its offense.  Last week, Stanford won that battle.  We’ll see how it goes on Friday with the big prize on the line.

IV. National Notes

Yes, there were other games going on last week.  Weren’t you paying attention?

In case you weren’t, here are some of the highlights.

  • Kent State (!?) improved to 11-1 with its 28-6 demolition of Ohio.
  • Nebraska moved to 10-2 and earned a berth in the Big 12 title game by upending Iowa 13-7.
  • East Carolina made it eight wins on the year with its 65-59 double overtime victory over Marshall, which just misses out on a bowl game.  Don’t get me started on these crazy scores.
  • After opening the season 5-0, West Virginia finally recorded its sixth win with a 31-24 decision over Iowa State, thereby snapping a five game losing skid.
  • Georgia eviscerated in-state rival Georgia Tech 42-10 to move to 11-1 — nice preparation for the showdown with Alabama in the SEC championship game.
  • Ohio State shut out Michigan in the second half to win 26-21 and finish 12-0, leaving Buckeye fans to wonder why in the world they didn’t take a self-imposed bowl ban last season instead of this season.
  • Two 4-6 Big East teams — Connecticut and Pittsburgh — defeated two departing 9-1 Big East teams — Louisville and Rutgers, respectively — to send the message that if you’re going to leave the conference, we’re going to kick you through the door on the way out.
  • Virginia Tech had just enough to hold off Virginia, 17-14, to send Beamer’s Boys to 6-6 and a chance at another winning season pending a bowl bid.
  • Northwestern made sure it would win its ninth game of the season by throttling Illinois 50-14.  Can the Wildcats finally win a bowl game for the first time in over half a century?
  • Tennessee finally won an SEC game, defeating hapless Kentucky 37-17.  Both teams made mistakes galore, indicating why a coaching change was necessary.  The announced crowd of 81,841 was apparently misleading, as there did not appear to be 60,000 fans at the game.  Derek Dooley and Joker Phillips may have a golf date in the near future.
  • For the second straight week, 52 was the number for Baylor, who moved to 6-5 after a 52-45 overtime victory over Texas Tech.  The Bears are now bowl eligible yet again — a fantastic string of seasons for a program that previously had been the perennial doormat of the Big 12.
  • North Carolina provided Maryland with its ACC walking papers, handing the soon-to-be Big Ten member a 45-38 loss.
  • Utah State moves to 10-2 after its 45-9 destruction of Idaho, which probably should not be playing in the FBS.  The Aggies are two field goals away from being undefeated.
  • Florida rained on Florida State’s parade, scoring 24 points in the final quarter to erase a 20-13 deficit and win going away, 37-26.  The Gators are now 11-1.  Too bad that “1” was to Georgia, which will cost them a national title opportunity.
  • Penn State moves to 8-4 and sends 7-5 Wisconsin backing into the Big Ten title game, which, unsurprisingly, has very little interest.
  • Vanderbilt clobbered Wake Forest 55-21 to move to 8-4 (that’s eight and four — and yes, that’s Vanderbilt) for the first time since 1982.  Break out the Intellivision!
  • Memphis forced Southern Mississippi to endure what I believe is the worst single-season turnaround in college football history.  Last year USM went 12-2, but after losing 42-24 to the Tigers, the Eagles finish the season 0-12.  What can anyone say?
  • Furthering the “ACC is weak” argument, South Carolina disposed of rival Clemson 27-17.  The ACC finishes the regular season with zero teams ranked in the top 10 and zero teams with only one loss.
  • Mississippi defeated Mississippi State 41-14 to finish 6-6, and more importantly, win the Egg Bowl.  I wonder if they can order their trophy scrambled.
  • Texas A&M defeated Missouri 59-29 to finish 10-2 and keep QB Johnny Manziel atop the Heisman Trophy race.  Barring something unforeseen, he will become the first freshman to take the Stiff Arm.  Wow.
  • San Jose State matched their best win total in 25 years by defeating Louisiana Tech 52-43.  The only blemishes for the Spartans this season have been a three point loss at Stanford and a 22-point loss at Utah State.
  • Fresno State made their first season in the Mountain West a great one, polishing off Air Force 48-15 to earn a share of the conference title.  The Fighting Armenians are back.
  • Talk about numbers: Oklahoma put up 44 first downs, ran 103 total plays, and netted 618 yards of total offense — but still needed overtime to win the Bedlam game against Oklahoma State, 51-48.  I’m tired just thinking about it.

Actually, I’m just tired.  It’s 6:13 in the morning.  Good night.

–Mr. G.

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