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Excuses, Excuses before Stanford-UCLA Round II

There are plenty of explanations for why one might expect UCLA to put up more of a fight in tomorrow's Pac-12 championship game, but are any of them any good?

Stephen Dunn

Good excuses make good promotion when rematches are involved. Who, besides Stanford fans, gets excited when he thinks to himself, "Well, Stanford whipping UCLA by 18 on their turf was an accurate, fair reflection of the differences between the two teams, and I can’t wait to see Stanford whip them all over again in their place! Fox, 8 pm eastern, 5 pm pacific!"

So you have the excuses, the most prominent of which is the "UCLA held something back schematically/emotionally" but also includes ideas like "those stupid Pac-12 refs!" and "we dropped a lot of passes!" (these are the most frequent explanations I’ve read on Bruins places for their losses. If there’s another explanation that doesn’t involve Stanford just being a better team, feel free to advance it.)

I don’t really care about the latter two excuses -- if the Pac-12 refs are indeed stupid, they have curiously kept on being stupid on the Bruins for weeks (five straight weeks with 100+ yards in penalties) (and, also, missed some calls in UCLA’s favor: pass interference against Wayne Lyons and no block in the back on Hundley’s long 38-yard jaunt are two examples off of the top of my head); and, while the Bruins did drop some seemingly-easy catches, Hundley made some incredible throws and the wideouts/Fauria made some incredible catches. It goes both ways, of course.

Process of elimination makes it pretty obvious: I do think the former excuse is interesting. The assumption is that differences in motivation and scheme were a) asymmetric and b) likely to correct themselves overwhelmingly in favor of UCLA in the rematch. It’s very possible, but I think the meme is way overdone.

For one, if the Bruins were holding something back, Jim Mora did an awful job of it. If Mora were -- we’ll be charitable -- indifferent as to the result of the game, why did he leave Hundley in for at least a quarter and maybe a quarter and a half extra? Hundley took a ton of hits in that time.

If Mora et. al. were holding stuff back schematically, why did he have Hundley pooch punt for the first time all season, or break out the split offensive line that led to Johnathan Franklin’s TD to bring the game to a competitive 35-17 (which, to my knowledge, UCLA has never used before)? These are the kind of wrinkles you’d think a coach saving his best stuff would, you know, save.

If any coach looked like he was preparing for Round II, it was Shaw: he pulled Stepfan Taylor with 20 minutes of game time remaining; a large section of the fourth quarter featured defensive backups playing (congratulations to Kevin Anderson for his second career sack).

(Mora didn’t play all his cards, to be fair: Hundley ran much less than he usually does.)

Then again, Hogan also ran much less than he usually does. Hogan had two scrambles in the game and no designed rushes. That compares to 7 non-sack carries against Oregon, 9 against Oregon State and 5 against Colorado (which was basically half a game).

Then there’s the passing mix. (To review: I chart based on the available passes from the Pac-12’s 60 minute game recaps. They frequently cut passes. I also count penalized passes -- the intended aggression or lack thereof is what’s important. I count passes based on the yardage the pass travels rather than the total yardage the play goes.) Let’s drop the game behind the veil of ignorance and compare it to Hogan’s debut against Colorado:

1-10 yards 10-20 yards 20+ yards ?
A 16/21 4/21 1/20 4
B 13/18 4/18 1/18 4

There’s a difference, but it’s not dramatic (and Hogan played much more aggressively against Oregon State and Oregon). (By the way, B = the UCLA game.) The most likely explanation? It’s possible Shaw and Hamilton felt this was the best way to attack the Bruin defense; it seems more likely that they were holding something back. (There’s a third possibility: Hogan, for whatever reason, ordered the "short passes" item off of the menu. For another time, hopefully, but -- we really need to get big passing plays back into the offense.)

The notion that UCLA held something back emotionally is trickier; I can’t necessarily deal with that. I will say, however, that if Bruins fans think that if the Stanford defense was maximally fired up coming off of a draining Oregon win...and if Bruins fans think that that’s the nastiest Stanford’s tackling or pass rush can get....(how many times did Franklin and Hundley escape Stanford players? I’m going to guess Derek Mason’s answer is: FAR TOO MANY.)...they may well be in for an unpleasant surprise come Friday.

(This isn’t to imply I think the game will be a blowout or anything. Hundley is far too good a QB to feel entirely comfortable opposing him. Some of those throws last Saturday were ridiculous. UCLA also has some other fantastic top-end players -- but Stanford has much more depth. Still, Any Given Friday, as I believe they say.)