STANFORD, Calif. - For the first time since 2000, Stanford Football is returning to Pasadena on New Year's Day, a third consecutive BCS appearance. They simply wouldn't be denied.
Down early against 17th-ranked UCLA on Friday night in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game, the Cardinal did what it seemingly has done all season: stay cool, calm and never give up.
The result was a pulse-raising 27-24 victory in front of a rain-soaked announced crowd of 31,622 at Stanford Stadium. It was eighth-ranked Stanford's seventh consecutive victory after a tough overtime loss at Notre Dame.
"You gotta be tough, you gotta be smart and you gotta finish what you start," said David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, whose team improved to 11-2.
Inside the locker room, senior RB Stepfan Taylor gave the game ball to Shaw, who would have none of it. Taylor has been the heart and soul of the team, and he became the school's all-time leading rusher (4,212 yards) against the Bruins.
"This is the one he set the record with," said Shaw, who handed the ball back to his senior.
Teammates chanted "S-T, S-T, S-T."
What did it mean to Taylor?
"It was a great feeling," he said. "The record is a total team effort."
Like nearly all of his teammates, Taylor was wearing a new Pac-12 Champions hat and clutching a rose. Most were hugging, high-fiving or taking pictures with the new trophy.
"Any time you set goals -- the first day as freshmen -- and finally make them a reality, it's an incredible feeling," senior ILB Shayne Skov said. "A lot of guys put their heart and soul into this. That's what it is. We have a 100 guys who have faith in each other."
"Those who stay will be champions," said another of the Cardinal tri-captains. "Everybody contributed. This is one of the best experiences of my life."
Senior WR Drew Terrell, who caught a game-tying touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, tried to put it all into perspective.
"The resolve and character of this team is hard to explain," he said. "This is something I dreamed about as a little kid. I love this team."
Fifth-year senior OLB Chase Thomas, the other tri-captain, said Stanford's knack for winning close games was a matter of character, resolve and self-belief.
"The type of guys we have in our locker room, we stepped up when we needed to," said Thomas. "We made big plays. We took teams into deep water late, dragged them out, bled them out in the late games. It shows a lot of determination and will on our team to be able to finish so many games in the fourth quarter or even overtime."
UCLA won the opening toss and elected to receive. Starting from their own 15, the Bruins marched 85 yards in eight plays, converting three times on third down. Running back Johnathan Franklin, who churned for a game-high 194 yards, burst through a gaping hole up the middle for a 51-yard touchdown and a 7-0 UCLA lead.
Stanford answered right back. Sophomore RB Remound Wright returned the ensuing kickoff to the Cardinal 31. Sophomore QB Kevin Hogan, making his fourth career start, all against ranked opponents, patiently moved the offense down the field. He keyed the march with a 14-yard scramble on third and 10. Senior FB Ryan Hewitt also came up big, diving for two yards on fourth and 1 at the UCLA 35. On the next play, Hogan escaped pressure and lobbed a short pass to Taylor, who slipped a tackle by defensive end Cassius Marsh and rambled to the Bruin two-yard line. Hogan did the rest, faking out the UCLA defense with a bootleg to his left. With 6:07 remaining in the first quarter, the score was tied at 7-7.
UCLA quickly regained the lead on a five-yard keeper by QB Brett Hundley, who wasn't touched around left end. Franklin set up the score with a 48-yard scamper. With 3:40 left in the quarter, UCLA regained the lead, 14-7.
The Bruins, showing little resemblance to the team that lost to Stanford 35-17 six days earlier in the Rose Bowl, continued to gash the vaunted Cardinal defense early in the second quarter. Franklin ripped off a 30-yard run, and UCLA seemed poised to strike again.
However, First-Team All-Pac-12 junior FS Ed Reynolds had other ideas. He intercepted a Hundley pass - his sixth theft of the season - and darted his way through Bruin tacklers for an 80-yard return to the UCLA one-yard line. On the next play, Taylor plowed over right tackle for the tying touchdown, and with 12:57 left, the game was knotted 14-14.
After forcing the first UCLA punt of the evening, the Cardinal offense drove to the Bruin 32, where it faced third and 5. However, Hogan was sacked for an eight-yard loss and junior P Ben Rhyne, replacing the injured Daniel Zychlinski, kicked into the end zone for a touchback.
The game settled down until 1:31 remained in the half, when the Cardinal offense took over on its own 17. Hogan picked up two nice gains on keepers, then hit Terrell for completions of 13 and 14 yards, the latter carrying to the UCLA 20. A holding penalty pushed Stanford back, but Taylor recouped the 10 yards, passing Darrin Nelson as the school's all-time leading rusher. That set up a 37-yard field goal by Williamson, whose kick was good as time expired to lift the Cardinal to its first lead, 17-14.
Light rain began to fall again at the start of the third quarter. Stanford started at its own 25 and quickly went three-and-out. Rhyne's 30-yard punt provided UCLA with great field position at its own 40.
The Bruins made the most of it. Continuing his impressive play, Franklin shook free for a 30-yard run. The Cardinal defense stiffened in the red zone, however, forcing UCLA to settle for a 31-yard field goal to even the score at 17-17 with 8:20 remaining.
Again, the Stanford offense stalled, picking up one first down on a pass interference penalty. The Bruins resumed control at their own 20 and methodically marched 80 yards in 12 plays, Franklin covering the last 20 to the end zone to help UCLA reclaim the lead at 24-17 with 1:04 left in the quarter.
Desperately needing a spark, Cardinal sophomore return man Kelsey Young almost broke the ensuing kickoff, returning it 38 yards. Hogan followed with a 17-yard pass to Terrell to push Stanford into Bruin territory as the third quarter expired.
A face mask penalty against UCLA helped the cause, but the Cardinal gave back most of the yardage on a holding call. On third and 13 from the Bruin 21, Hogan received good protection from his line and found Terrell in the right corner of the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 24-24.
"Not at all," said Terrell, when asked if he was the primary target. "Everybody ran a go-route. The corner was staring at our tight end the whole time. I got off clean, and Hogan made a helluva throw."
Hogan, named the game's MVP, completed 16 of 22 passes for 155 yards and ran 11 times for 47 yards. He is now 4-0 as a starter.
"It's been a good month," he said. "We've been playing well. The guys around me make it a lot easier than it looks."
Energized by the offense, the Stanford defense forced a punt. Terrell nearly broke his second return of the year, but carted it 18 yards to the Bruin 43. A 20-yard run by Young out of the Wildcat formation moved the Cardinal to the UCLA 17, but another holding penalty proved costly.
Hogan hit senior TE Zach Ertz for a nine-yard gain, and it helped set up a 36-yard field goal by Williamson, who gave Stanford a 27-24 advantage with 6:40 remaining to play.
The Bruins used their ground game to quickly push into Cardinal territory and seemed on their way to tying the game or taking the lead. But Stanford stiffened, getting a third down pass break up by junior ILB A.J. Tarpley, who nearly intercepted. UCLA punted and the Cardinal took over at its own 20 with 4:39 left.
Stanford churned out a key first down to exhaust the Bruins of their final timeouts, then punted. With 2:18 left, UCLA had one last gasp starting from its own 19. A roughing the passer penalty helped the Bruins cross midfield, but as so often has been the case this season, the defense rose up. Ultimately, it came down to a 52-yard field goal attempt by Ka'imi Fairbairn in the drizzle with 39 seconds remaining, but the kick never had a chance.
When the game ended, soaked Stanford students poured out the stands, many with roses in hand. Red and white confetti filled the damp air and the celebration was on.