Balanced Stanford one win shy of Rose Bowl

PASADENA, Calif. — Three months ago, the main question asked about Stanford football was regarding a player who was no longer on the team’s roster. At the Pac-12 Media Day, head coach David Shaw shifted the attention away from Andrew Luck, and onto the player who has now rushed for over 4,100 yards in his storied NCAA career. 

“I think we’ve got the most underrated running back in the nation,” Shaw said of Stepfan Taylor, exactly four months prior to Stanford’s 35-17 drubbing of UCLA (9-3, 6-3) at the Rose Bowl on Saturday evening that capped a Pac-12 North Division title and a rematch against the Bruins next Friday night at Stanford Stadium in the Pac-12 Championship.

The Cardinal (10-2, 8-1) relied on another outstanding performance by Taylor, who rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, setting a school record with his 21st career 100-yard game.

Though the three-year starter has amassed 4,134 career rushing yards while running for 38 touchdowns — and has totaled a career-best 1,364 yards on the ground this year, even without the threat of Andrew Luck — there are still those who occupy more of the spotlight.

“Some other guys other places get more publicity,” Shaw said. “He’s as good as anybody in the country. He may not be as flashy as other people, but you hand him the ball, and he’s special with the ball. He reads blocks. He’s quick. He’s explosive. He can finish runs, like he did twice today. He’s special, and I think more and more people are trying to recognize it.”

“The funny thing is [that] the guys whose opinions I trust are the NFL scouts, because they see a lot of football, and they watch a lot of football with an eye. And they love the kid.”

One of Taylor’s gritty attributes is the way he so strongly embodies the nature of this physical Stanford identity that continues to win the trench wars on both sides of the ball. On multiple outside carries he passed up opportunities to step out, opting for an extra yard or two even if it came with the inevitable dings and bruises.

“Coach told us we don’t want to just go and run out of bounds. We want to deliver the hit on the sidelines and let that stay in the defensive backs’ head,” Taylor said.

Having checked UCLA off the list, the 2012 season marked the third straight year that the Cardinal defeated its three in-state division rivals, which also include Cal and USC. Stanford has recorded 10 wins in three consecutive years for the first time in school history.

The game also saw the continued development of Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan, who entered the season as an afterthought in the battle between Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes to succeed Luck as Stanford’s operator under center. Hogan continued to show off his mobile athleticism, looking comfortable on bootlegs and play-action passes, finishing with 160 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions on 15-22 passing.

Considering the size and variety of pieces around him, Hogan has more than admirably held up his own responsibilities of handling the team’s attack.

“He’s opening up the offense, making us more balanced,” Taylor said of Hogan. “They have to respect his mobility and his arm. That’s helping out the run game, because they can’t just stack everybody in the box. It’s a great addition for our offense.”

The question now shifts to whether or not the Cardinal will remain in the Bruins’ heads when they meet again in six days’ time.

“Losing next week makes this game irrelevant, so we’re going out there and preparing to win, just like we did this week,” said sophomore safety Jordan Richards, whose third quarter interception of Brett Hundley was only the third thrown by UCLA’s emerging quarterback in his last six games.

It does set up a unique situation — a “quirk,” as Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott called it at a halftime press conference — in which Stanford will be forced to win its fifth straight game against UCLA if it wishes to reach the Rose Bowl for the first time since January 1, 2000. The Cardinal lost 17-9 to Wisconsin in the first Rose Bowl of the new millennium.

They’ll have to get through a motivated Bruins team that has worlds more to play for. UCLA hasn’t appeared in a Rose Bowl since January 1, 1999, a 38-31 loss to Wisconsin.

“I’ve been around,” Shaw said. “I look younger than I am. I don’t know if that’s a positive thing or not. It’s really hard to beat a team twice, particularly in back to back weeks. You’ve got to fight complacency. They’re going to come back with a chip on their shoulders, come back stronger, faster and better. Once you play a game, after you play a game, you always see things you could’ve done. ‘Aw, we could’ve done this. We could’ve done that.’ So whatever tendencies we’ve built, whatever we showed today, they’re going to have counters for. So we’ve got do to the same thing. We’ve got to self-scout ourselves, making sure that we are as diverse as we need to be next week and still be efficient.”

Though Stanford should face a more focused Bruins team next week, they’ll still be able to rely on one of the country’s most feared and physical front sevens. The Cardinal’s seven sacks Saturday set a new school record with 53 on the season, breaking the 1999 team’s record of 48. Entering the game ranked second in the country in rushing defense by limiting opponents to a stout 71.8 yards on the ground, UCLA managed only 73 rushing yards, including a season-low 3.1 yard average by the Bruins’ all-time leading rusher, Johnathan Franklin.

“We’re going to bring it, man,” linebacker Shane Skov said of the rematch. “We’re going to come out swinging, and we’re going to keep going until we impose our will. Hat goes off to them — they played a good game, but we played physical, we played hard, and we want to send that message because we’re going to do the exact same thing next week.”

Skov, who missed 10 games last season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, was not a full part of a memorable Stanford season a year ago that teetered on legendary status before kicker Jordan Williamson missed two late field goals in a tantalizing 41-38 loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Though there’s less Luck, there’s nearly as much balance one year later — just be wary of bringing up old news to this latest Cardinal outfit.

“That’s the goal, just to be balanced,” Taylor said. “We don’t want to focus on last year. We want to focus on this year, what we’re doing now. But we strive to be a balanced team.”

Stanford earned its first ever appearance in the Pac-12 Championship the hard way, having to win a conference road game after Oregon went into Reser Stadium and beat Oregon State. Though that game put more pressure on the Cardinal, it mattered little to the Stanford players, none of whom were aware of the outcome of the Civil War in Corvallis.

“Didn’t watch the game. Didn’t think that was important,” Shaw said. “The only thing that matters is what happened on our field. We try to control that. Guys did a good job today.”