There was 2:05 left in the game. Stanford trailed UCLA 13-9 after Bruins kicker JJ Molson nailed a 35-yard field goal with 6:32 left on the clock. UCLA fans thought their team was safe -- Stanford struggled to put together successful drives all night and the Bruins had figured out a way to successfully stymie star running back Christian McCaffrey, who had only rushed for 134 yards up until this fateful drive.
Instead, quarterback Ryan Burns used a combination of receivers -- Trenton Irwin, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, and the intended Michael Rector -- to cultivate a game-winning drive that culminated in a spectacular touchdown of the end zone fade variety with 24 seconds left on the clock. The unlikely hero: Arcega-Whiteside.
#Stanford's touchdown puts them up 16-13 with 24 seconds left. #UCLA pic.twitter.com/2b3Kh2oSPu
— Emily Van Buskirk (@Emilnem) September 25, 2016
The eight-yard fade from Burns to the redshirt freshman propelled the Cardinal to a 16-13 lead with only 20 seconds left for UCLA to conjure up some sort of Hail Mary drive. Instead, Josh Rosen was sacked by Joey Alfieri and the ball was scooped up by Solomon Thomas who ran it back 42-yards for the Cardinal's second touchdown in 24 seconds.
“Our receivers came through, big time,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw post game. “Trent Irwin had a big game for him. He made some big plays and got the drive started. JJ Arcega-Whiteside had a nice catch. The big one, we just put JJ out there one-on-one. He’s a big receiver with a ridiculous vertical. He’s got phenomenal range. We have a big quarterback who can give him the ball. So thankfully, we were able to score that last one.”
While the catch saved the game, the defensive touchdown sealed it.
“And then the defense, they finished the game,” Shaw said, making sure the defensive effort by Thomas and Alfieri got proper praise.
In fact, Stanford’s blind belief in its defense was initially a concern down the stretch, when Shaw decided to punt on 4th-and-1 on Stanford’s own 39-yard line with 6:26 left in the game and the Cardinal down by four. But Shaw stands by the decision, saying that it was one he would make every time he finds his team in that situation.
“Coincidentally, I had that conversation with my wife this morning about the exact scenario,” Shaw said after being asked about the controversial call. “Midfield, to our side of the field, fourth and one, and I told her that you punt. You punt every single time. If you have the defense that we have and the belief in what we do, that’s what you do. You punt. And you play great defense and you get the ball back.”
This is the second year in a row that Stanford has made a big catch against UCLA. Last year, it was Junior wide receiver Francis Owusu who shocked the world with an unbelievable grab around the back of UCLA defensive back Jaleel Wadood.
This year’s catch preserved a very special win-streak: Stanford’s ninth-consecutive victory against UCLA. And this gritty win could come into play down the line if a playoff berth is in the Cards.
As for now, Stanford needs to tighten up before taking on 10th ranked Washington in Seattle next week.
“We were hurting ourselves,” McCaffrey said of Stanford’s overall performance. “We have to do a better job of honing in on the details.”
His head coach agrees. While Shaw says the comeback victory “says a lot about the character of our football team,” he recognizes that “the youth of our football team showed in the first three quarters.”
“They got us on both sides,” Shaw admitted. “We made too many mistakes, and they made too many plays.”
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