Stanford bounces back by being itself

STANFORD, Calif. -- When streaking receiver Kodi Whitfield reached back from between two UCLA defenders to one-hand a 30-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kevin Hogan -- DaDaDa DaDaDa -- you could feel the collective head of the college football punditry nodding with a sage look. "That," the pundits said with self-satisfaction, "is what the Cardinal has been lacking. Playmaking from an aggressive downfield passing game!"

And early in the fourth quarter, when UCLA made its move, those same folks were wondering why Cardinal coach David Shaw's play calling was so conservative. Stanford rushed nine times for just 22 yards in the third and passed just three times in the fourth. A first-down run on their first possession of the fourth quarter netted only one yard, prelude to a three-and-out with the Bruins down just seven.

The Stanford defense, however, kept making stands against one of the nation's most potent offenses, and, finally, the Bruins defense softened up due to repeated body blows.

No. 13 Stanford got some notable playmaking during its 24-10 win over No. 9 UCLA, but the reason it won was because it was a better version of itself than it was a week ago during an upset loss at Utah.

It played to its again sure-tackling defense. It won the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. It showed patience with the running game.

In the fourth quarter, with the screws tightening, Stanford rushed for 81 yards on 17 carries, while UCLA managed just 53 total yards on 17 plays. Cardinal running back Tyler Gaffney rushed for 84 of his 171 yards in the fourth, scoring his second touchdown with just more than a minute left by running through an exhausted Bruins defense.

"This was the epitome of Stanford football," Gaffney said.

UCLA had been averaging 46 points per game. The Bruins, who'd been averaging 547 yards per game, gained just 266 Saturday. Among the nation's leaders in third-down conversion percentage at 56 percent, the Bruins were 5-of-15 on third down.

Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley was being talked about as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate, but he was throttled by the Stanford defense, completing 24 of 39 passes for 192 yards, with two interceptions thrown to Cardinal safety Jordan Richards. He was sacked four times.

"Stanford did a really good job of bringing pressure," Hundley said. "Not even blitzing but just using their front four defensive line."

Last week, Utah gashed the Stanford defense for 410 yards -- 176 yards rushing -- and stymied the Cardinal offense, forcing turnovers and keeping Hogan off balance. In fact, one of the big questions last week was, "What's wrong with Stanford?", specifically Hogan and the offense.

Hogan's total quarterback rating dropped precipitously over the previous two games. It was 29.9 against Washington and 36.5 against Utah. His number was 78.9 against the Bruins, far better than Hundley's 34.7 (scale is 1 to 100, with 50 being average).

Part of the issue was Hogan struggling to developing consistent chemistry with a No. 2 receiver, someone other than speedy Ty Montgomery, who leads the Cardinal in all major statistical categories. The Cardinal's next three top receivers, Whitfield, Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector had combined for just 27 receptions.

Against UCLA, Whitfield made the best catch of the season thus far, and Cajuste led all receivers with seven receptions for 109 yards.

Cajuste did that in just over three quarters of play, because he suffered a leg injury early in the fourth. While Shaw was uncertain of Cajuste's availability for a big visit to Oregon State next weekend, he was optimistic, saying, "It wasn't as bad as originally thought."

Hogan completed 18 of 25 passes for 227 yards with a touchdown and an interception that bounced off his receiver's hands. He also rushed for 33 yards. He said it wasn't new wrinkles that led to the offensive improvement.

"We got back to our base play, the plays we've been repping since training camp," he said. "I had to go a little bit more simple."

That said, it was notable that the Cardinal gave UCLA a good dose of up-tempo, no-huddle play, particularly in the first half. There also were more designed runs for Hogan. Pac-12 defensive coordinators will raise an eyebrow at that.

Stanford, which ran its home winning streak to 13 games by scoring a school-record sixth consecutive victory over UCLA, played its brand of football. It didn't panic about the loss at Utah, but it didn't forget how it went down, either. Shaw said he led a strong week of practice by telling his players to "bring it with you."

Stanford brought it for sure. It looked familiar. It looked like a team that, after hitting a speed bump, was back in the Pac-12 and, perhaps, national picture.