PALO ALTO, Calif. -- False alarm, everybody. It turns out that reports of Stanford's demise following last week's loss at Utah were premature.
It's not just that the No. 13 Cardinal (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12) handed No. 9 UCLA (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) its first defeat of the season here on Saturday. It's that they did so in positively Stanford-esque fashion. A running back (Tyler Gaffney) carried the ball 36 times. The offense held the ball for more than 37 minutes. The Cardinal's defense, which prides itself on the hashtag #PartyInTheBackfield, did just that while suffocating the Bruins in a 24-10 win.
"This is what we expect from each other -- enough said," Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov said after helping to hold UCLA's previously prolific offense to just 266 total yards, less than half its season average. "This is what we're capable of."
The dominating performance was what many expected from Stanford before the season. The Cardinal were ranked No. 4 in the preseason, and were a co-favorite in the Pac-12 alongside Oregon. The two teams have won each of the past four conference titles -- Stanford last year, Oregon in 2009, '10 and '11 -- and the Cardinal have played in three consecutive BCS bowls. The two team will meet on Nov. 7 in Palo Alto, a rematch of Stanford's 17-14 overtime upset of the Ducks in Eugene last November.
But while undefeated Oregon has been every bit as dominant as predicted, the Cardinal have endured plenty of early-season drama. Stanford went up 29-0 against Arizona State on Sept. 27, but the Cardinal allowed the Sun Devils to score four second-half touchdowns in an eventual 42-28 win. Two weeks ago, Washington and quarterback Keith Price took Stanford to the wire before falling 31-28. Last week, the Cardinal dug into an early hole and couldn't gain six critical yards in the waning moments of a 27-21 loss to the Utes.
"As soon as the clock hit zero at Utah, we knew we needed to get better," said Gaffney. "That was a poorly executed game. That was not Stanford football."
There was a sense of desperation in Palo Alto last week. With unbeaten UCLA coming to town, the Cardinal were banged up enough on the defensive line that coaches moved starting tight end Luke Kaumatule to the other side of the ball. Stanford plays Oregon State and Oregon in each of the next two weeks, and the Cardinal absolutely had to beat the Bruins to preserve any shot at a potential Rose Bowl or BCS championship game berth.
Stanford coach David Shaw said that the team's weight room was as crowded last Sunday (the players' day off) as it had been following any game in the last two years. After getting uncharacteristically burned on swing passes and other perimeter plays by Utah, defensive coordinator Derek Mason worked overtime to make the necessary adjustments.
"Guys wanted to bounce back," said Shaw. "They wanted to move on."
UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley came into Saturday's game averaging 346 yards of total offense and an impressive 9.2 yards per passing attempt. But by the end of a first half in which Skov and the Cardinal front seven repeatedly got in his face, Hundley had completed only 5-of-10 passes for 37 yards. The Bruins came into the contest averaging 46 points per game, but Stanford's defense held them scoreless through the first 30 minutes. UCLA's offensive line, which starts two freshmen, was clearly overwhelmed.
Still, due to the combination of an extremely conservative game plan and a couple of offensive miscues (a Montgomery drop near the end zone on a long pass from quarterback Kevin Hogan, and a fumbled option pitch in the red zone), the Cardinal led just 3-0 at the break. The Bruins tied the game on their opening drive of the second half, but things got no easier for Hundley. UCLA lost two left tackles -- starter Simon Goines and backup Conor McDermott -- to injuries during the drive. (Goines would briefly return.)
Hundley's remarkable athleticism allowed him to occasionally escape pressure and turn a busted play into a positive one, such as when he scrambled for 30 yards early in the third quarter. "We probably missed more sacks than I can count on two hands," said Skov. But Stanford had Hundley's receivers blanketed, too. There was only so much he could do.
"Stanford did a really good job of bringing pressure," said Hundley. "Not even blitzing, but just using their front four defensive line."
The Cardinal went up 10-3 on receiver Kodi Whitfield's unbelievable one-handed touchdown catch on Stanford's first possession of the second half. When the Bruins got the ball back, a skittish Hundley telegraphed a pass downfield that Cardinal safety Jordan Richards intercepted at Stanford's 40-yard line. That set up a 60-yard scoring drive that made the score 17-3.
"We tried to contain [Hundley] and make him stay in the pocket and force him into hopefully a couple bad throws," said Shaw. "We had a couple balls tipped, and a couple balls picked."
Hundley, who finished the game 24-of-39 for 192 yards, threw a three-yard touchdown pass to wideout Shaquelle Evans to cut the Cardinal's lead to 17-10 early in the fourth quarter. And it's not like Stanford ran away with the game. It just kept running at the Bruins, with Gaffney gashing them for 171 rushing yards and two scores. Still, after kicker Conrad Ukropina (filling in for an injured Jordan Williamson) missed a 46-yard field goal attempt, UCLA had two chances in the final 6:24 to drive for a tying touchdown.
But with Skov and defensive end Ben Gardner pressuring Hundley, the sophomore went three-and-out on the first try, and then threw another pick to Richards with 2:40 remaining.
Gaffney put the game away with a four-yard touchdown run with 1:42 left to play. Fittingly, the game ended with Cardinal linebacker Trent Murphy sacking Hundley, Stanford's seventh tackle for loss to go with nine quarterback hurries.
"It was definitely a great feeling," Murphy said of the sack.
"One of our goals is to keep a team under 17 points," he said. "[UCLA has] a very high-scoring offense, so we knew we had our work cut out for us. They're still a great team. If everything works out, we could see them again."
Murphy was referring to the Pac-12 title game, where the Cardinal defeated the Bruins last season. (The teams have now played each other three times since Nov. 24, 2012.) To get to the championship game, however, Stanford must first survive a gauntlet. With Hundley and UCLA in the rearview mirror, the Cardinal face Oregon State in Corvallis next week. Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion was the national leader in passing yards and touchdowns heading into Saturday. Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota and the Ducks come after that.
"Welcome to the Pac-12, baby" exclaimed Skov when asked about the schedule.
If Saturday was any indication, Stanford will be handing out plenty more rude welcomes to opposing quarterbacks.