Stanford shrugs off spoiler talk with UCLA on tap

David Shaw loves the Rose Bowl.

"I close my eyes and see the blimp shots," he says.

His Stanford program has had a chance to become familiar with college football's most iconic venue, playing three games there over the previous two seasons -- including a pair on New Year's Day.

In an intriguing twist, the 6-5 Cardinal won't be ringing in 2015 in the Arroyo Seco, but they will make their return visit to Pasadena this Friday with Rose Bowl aspirations still on the line -- for their opponent.

The two-time defending Pac-12 champions have failed in their 2014 quest for a three-peat, but Stanford isn't tapping out yet -- not with a chance to make a potentially season-salvaging statement against UCLA, which will be gunning to clinch the Pac-12 South title against them.

"Obviously, we had a whole lot of higher hopes for this year, and that's the frustrating part, because there are missed opportunities there," safety Jordan Richards said. "But we can't focus on the past. We have to go 1-0 this week."

That also happened to be the firm message coming out of Berkeley last Saturday, where the Cardinal responded to the first-ever consecutive losses of the Shaw era by manhandling Cal 38-17.

Even a close win at Memorial Stadium would have set more alarms off on the Farm. But Stanford flexed its muscles, overwhelming the Bears with speed and power on both sides of the football. Their offensive performance was balanced (214 passing yards, 204 rushing yards), and their defensive showing was violent (constant pressure, five forced turnovers). It all ended with a mercy kneel-down near the Cal goal line.

Now comes the million-dollar question: Can last Saturday's well-rounded Stanford power -- the one the Pac-12 became so familiar with throughout the past four years -- deliver a similarly robust performance against a better opponent, one that isn't the Pac-12 cellar when it comes to defense?

So far this season, the answer has been no. The Cardinal's defense has been sturdy, but the offense has averaged only 11.4 points per regulation against ranked opponents.

No. 8 UCLA is, of course, a ranked opponent.

The Bruins are more than that: They're playing for the trophy Stanford currently holds. They're still in contention for the College Football Playoff. They're coming off one of their most impressive showings of the season, a dominant 38-20 scourging of archrival USC.

The roles have reversed: Stanford, a team that carried a target on its back ever since its ruthless 2010 Orange Bowl run, suddenly has a chance to play spoiler. It's uncharted territory for a roster that knows nothing but BCS bowl game runs. Prior to this season, the Cardinal had gone on those four straight times.

Stanford players insist that this new, unfamiliar angle is not affecting their approach for this regular-season finale.

"We're not into the whole spoiler thing," Richards said. "We're not winning games for Arizona or ASU's sake. We're playing games for our own sake."

And from that perspective, there still is a little something left on the table. Last week, the Cardinal earned bowl eligibility, guaranteeing extra December practice time that will be valuable for a team that'll require serious reloading next year: As many as nine defensive starters will be gone. And aside from instilling confidence that Stanford can still deliver against higher-tier opponents, a win against UCLA would keep the Cardinal on track for an eight-win season.

In other words, a drop to 6-6 and a bowl game loss would be a brutal tumble for Stanford, but an 8-5 overall finish punctuated by a head-turning "we're still here" win would brighten the Cardinal picture in the larger scheme of things.

But this a supremely difficult hinge point for Stanford, especially since the Cardinal will be missing their best playmaker in Ty Montgomery, who suffered a shoulder injury against Cal. Shaw said they'll try to re-create Montgomery's Swiss Army knife production through a combination of Francis Owusu, Christian McCaffrey, Michael Rector and Jordan Pratt, but here's the bleak reality: This is a matchup of the Pac-12's worst offense against a talented, peaking UCLA defense.

Shaw is longing for the Cardinal to deliver their first truly complete performance of the year. If Stanford is indeed able to deliver that vintage showing, they can throw a massive final wrench in what has already been a wild Pac-12 race. Folks in Tempe and Tucson would certainly be thrilled.

That's the bigger picture. The Cardinal's focus, though, remains on the smaller one -- and not on the public's idea that this showdown with UCLA is an opportunity to play spoiler, or to solidify a frustrating 2014 with a signature win.

"I may sign couple autographs postgame for some kids," center Graham Shuler said. "But a fat offensive lineman's signature is the only signature I can give on Friday. That's for someone else to decide.... We just need to play our best ball, and I think we're capable of that."