STANFORD, Calif. – One play didn’t decide Stanford’s 24-10 victory over UCLA on Saturday, especially one in the third quarter. But in reflecting on the singular highlight of the Cardinal’s return to victory, it wasn’t even close.
Jordan Richards had two interceptions, and both led to touchdowns. But a spectacular touchdown catch by Kodi Whitfield was the play to remember in No. 13 Stanford’s triumph over the No. 9 and previously undefeated Bruins before 51,424 at Stanford Stadium.
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After a loss at Utah last week, Stanford rebounded with a defensive performance that all but shut down dynamic quarterback Brett Hundley. The Cardinal (6-1 overall, 4-1 Pac-12) limited UCLA (5-1, 2-1) to 75 yards rushing and stopped the Bruins on three fourth-quarter series after they had closed to within a touchdown.
The Stanford offensive gameplan was centered on Tyler Gaffney, who earned career highs in yards (171) and carries (36), and ran for two touchdowns, including a clinching four-yard run with 1:42 left.
Cardinal receiver Devon Cajuste had a strong performance as well, catching seven passes for 109 yards, though his day ended in the third quarter when he suffered an apparent leg injury.
As for Whitfield, part of the importance of his big catch was the timing – his score broke a 3-3 third-quarter tie and sparked a run of 14 unanswered points. But what made it even bigger was its spectacular nature.
Describing Whitfield’s 30-yard touchdown catch from Kevin Hogan – the sophomore’s first collegiate touchdown -- cannot do the play justice. With tight coverage by Ishmael Adams – actually, a hand pinning his left arm -- Whitfield leaped high for the pass with his right hand. The Bruins’ Anthony Jefferson converged from behind on the play, thinking he had an interception, only for Whitfield to snag the pass one-handed out of mid-air while being hit by Adams.
“Unbelievable,” Hogan said. “I just try to take a little air out of it and give him a chance, and he did the rest.”
The catch was absolutely stunning, causing a gasp from the crowd as it was shown on stadium replay. It happened so fast, that fans could only guess at what they saw. The slow-motion footage only confirmed it, and Stanford took a 10-3 lead with 7:27 left in the third quarter.
“God bless Kodi,” said David Shaw, Stanford’s Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. “Technically, that ball was thrown extremely late. But the safety wasn’t over there, and Kevin Hogan feels so comfortable with Kodi, he was going to give him chances to make a play, and Kodi made one heck of a play.”
Moments later, the Cardinal defense supplied a big play of its own. Hundley had a receiver open down the left sideline and appeared to lead him perfectly, only for safety Richards to close quickly. Richards reached the spot first with a leaping interception.
Though he returned the ball 54 yards for an apparent touchdown, the return was called back by a holding penalty. No matter, Stanford scored on the possession anyway to take a 17-3 third-quarter lead.
Richards also had 10 tackles.
“The year that (safety) Ed Reynolds had last year, the ball is staying away from Ed and going Jordan’s way,” Shaw said. “Jordan’s doing a great job of disguising coverage. Now, with Jordan making so many plays and Ed ready to make plays, it’s dangerous back there.”
After closing the deficit to 17-10, UCLA had three possessions in an attempt to tie the score, but were stopped each time, the last on another Richards pick. This one set up Gaffney’s final score, ensuring the victory.
The first half was a defensive affair, mostly. Stanford held UCLA to 87 total yards while gaining 207. But two missed opportunities prevented Stanford from at least 10 apparent points.
On the first series with the ball at its own 49, Hogan threw deep for Ty Montgomery who was open down the middle. The catchable pass, however, glanced off Montgomery’s fingertips near the goal line and fell incomplete.
In the final minute of the half, Hogan found Cajuste on a curl. Cajuste had a bead on the ball as he fell to the ground, but it bounced off his chest and into the arms of UCLA’s Ishmael Adams inside the 10-yard line.
It seemed the interception cost Stanford at least a good shot at a field goal. As it was, kicker Conrad Ukropina in his first action subbing for injured starter Jordan Williamson, accounted for all the first-half points with a 31-yard field with 4:34 left in the first quarter.
“Jordan kicked yesterday, kicked Friday, and got a little sore,” Shaw said. “We thought the smartest thing to do would be to rest him. There is a chance for next week. The way it looks right now, definitely for Oregon.”
For Cajuste none of his catches were bigger than his 34-yard effort to set up Gaffney’s first touchdown. On third-and-3 from the Bruins’ 36, Cajuste made a box-out move to gain position on the back shoulder pass. It was the longest of Cajuste’s day, which would end in the fourth quarter with an apparent leg injury.
“When he went down, we were playing for him,” Hogan said.
Two plays after Cajuste’s catch, Gaffney reached the nose of the ball over the plane of the goal-line after being hit in the backfield by UCLA defensive end Cassius Marsh.
UCLA closed within 17-10 on the first play of the fourth quarter when Hundley, on the waggle, found Shaquelle Ellis for a three-yard scoring pass.
After Ukropina’s 46-yard field goal attempt went wide right, UCLA took over with 6:24 left in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie, but the Cardinal forced a three and out.
Again, the Bruins took possession, this time with 2:57 left at their own 23. On third-and-10, Hundley’s receiver fell, and Richards leaped over the prone body to make his second interception of the game.
Stanford, or rather Gaffney, took it from there. Running on five consecutive plays, Gaffney covered all 31 yards, culminating with a four-yard run with 1:42 left for a 24-10 lead.
“We tried to spell him with three other running backs, and he looked at me in the fourth quarter. He said, ‘Coach, I ain’t tired.’ I said, ‘We’re not taking you out anymore.’”
Stanford resumes play Saturday in Corvallis, when the Cardinal takes on Oregon State at 7:30 p.m.