Oct. 3, 2009
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STANFORD, Calif. - Each game seems to create a truer test of what the Stanford football team is capable of, and the Cardinal continues to respond to its newest challenges.
That was the case on Saturday afternoon when Stanford got 134 rushing yards and three touchdowns from Toby Gerhart to stay atop the Pacific-10 Conference with a 24-16 victory over previously-unbeaten UCLA before 41,525 at Stanford Stadium.
"We have a good team," Gerhart said. "There was a lot of talk about which of these teams was the real deal. This was a chance for us to make a statement. And I believe we did."
Each of Stanford' previous three victories - over Washington State, San Jose State and Washington - were against teams it had beaten last year while going 5-7. If Stanford was to prove something, it needed to beat someone like UCLA, a team it hadn't beaten since 2003.
To do so, it got top performances across the board from a balanced offensive attack, a clutch defense and some trickery.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck had what coach Jim Harbaugh called, "his best game so far," while completing 14 of 20 passes for 198 yards and no interceptions. And receiver Ryan Whalen caught six passes for 118 yards, with one catch coming on a pivotal flea flicker for 46 yards that set up Stanford's third touchdown.
Despite a 21-6 third-quarter lead, Stanford's victory was not ensured until senior linebacker Will Powers shrugged off a tight end's block to hit the arm of UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft on a fourth-down play, causing the pass to fall incomplete with 1:07 left.
The victory did more than raise Stanford's records. The team did improve to a conference-best 3-0 and raise its overall mark to 4-1, its best start since going 5-1 in 2001. But it also showed that the Cardinal can finish a close game. A year ago, the Cardinal lost twice in the final 10 seconds, including a 23-20 loss to UCLA, and lost in same manner in Week Two this season against Wake Forest.
In those games, the defense was unable to prevent long drives at crucial moments. Not this time.
"We accomplished what we set out to do," Powers said.
Instead of sitting back and playing loose, which the Cardinal did in allowing a long drive and field goal at the end of the first half, Stanford played straight up.
"We attacked," Harbaugh said.
With blitzes from all angles, UCLA gained only one first down on a final possession that began with 3:06 left and ended at its own 42-yard line.
Overall, UCLA was held to 95 yards rushing, while Stanford gained 174. The battle in the trenches was definitely won by the Cardinal.
"That UCLA team, those are physically mature pro-looking guys," Harbaugh said. "Their offensive line, their entire defense ... they've got some serious talent over there. We knew this would be our toughest test. Our guys didn't flinch - didn't back down one bit."
The Bruins (3-1, 0-1), which had a bye week to prepare, keyed on Gerhart. But the senior still surpassed 100 yards for the fourth time this season and 13th time in his collegiate career. With 2,301 career rushing yards, Gerhart moved up to fifth on Stanford's all-time list.
"I've always said that Toby's an NFL back playing college football," Harbaugh said. "They seemed very confident they were going to shut him right down, and it didn't happen."
Each Gerhart touchdown came at the end of long drives: an 80-yarder on 11 plays in the first quarter, an 83-yarder on 10 plays in the second, and a 75-yarder on six plays in the third.
Stanford is not a team that does a lot of trick plays, but there were some unusual schemes this time. On a third-and-one at the UCLA 12, Stanford brought in sixth-year guard Allen Smith to create a seven-man line, with four players lined up to the left of center Chase Beeler, and two to the right.
Harbaugh called the package "Giant," and Gerhart ran strong side for two yards and a first down. On the next play, Stanford did it again, with Gerhart picking through the defense for a 10-yard scoring run.
"They really weren't adjusting to it," Harbaugh said of UCLA's reaction to an alignment meant to create mismatches on the line. "They kept the same personnel in.
"When you do something that you haven't seen another team do against UCLA on film, and we haven't shown that, you're not sure exactly what you're going to get. Give the line a lot of credit for adjusting on the run and getting it done."
The flea flicker, which took Stanford to the 6-yard line, was another twist. Gerhart took the handoff up the middle, drawing the defense, and pitched the ball back to Luck.
"We wouldn't have called it if we weren't bulldozing people," Luck said.
In practice, the play had always gone to Chris Owusu down the sideline. This time, Owusu was covered, so Luck improvised and checked to Whalen on a deep post route. Gerhart used two plays to score, with the touchdown coming on a 1-yard run with 5:55 left in the third quarter.
Harbaugh was as impressed with Luck's flea-flicker pass as he was with an earlier 50-yarder to Whalen.
"I told Andrew after the game, `You'll enjoy watching the film,'" Harbaugh said. "I thought he played exceptional. There are not many guys who can pinpoint a 50-yard throw that doesn't come 15 yards off the ground."
Stanford did enough on offense to set up two Nate Whitaker field goals thereafter, but it was the Stanford defense that came up with the big plays, holding UCLA to three points on its final two possessions.
Stanford next will attempt to sustain its level of play on the road at Oregon State and Arizona over the next two weeks, after three consecutive victories in as many home games.
Which leads to the question: How good is this team?
"Great," Powers said unequivocally.
"We'll see," Harbaugh cautioned, adding that Stanford now deserves to be considered as a true "BCS-type of football school."
Said Harbaugh, "They're earning that kind of respect."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics