Saturday, December 1, 2012

Beyond The "X's" and "O's"--Why Stanford Beat UCLA in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game

Last night, Stanford beat UCLA 27-24 in a nailbiting conference football championship game that went down to the wire. This was just six days after the same two teams met at the Rose Bowl, with Stanford prevailing 35-17. While few people gave UCLA a chance to win the rematch, the oddsmakers favoring the Cardinal by 8 points (after opening as a 10 point favorite), I thought UCLA would win due to factors other than the physical matchup, which one might refer to as psychological or behavioral factors. However, as things turned out, Stanford won the game, and again for reasons beyond the X's and O's of game analysis, I fully accept the outcome.

There were two main reasons why I thought the Bruins would win. First of all, UCLA had played an atypically bad game against Stanford the week before. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley failed to scramble as he usually does when pressured in the pocket, his throwing accuracy was off, his receivers had uncharacteristic dropped balls, and the defense missed tackles. To me this was easily explainable. UCLA had just beaten crosstown rival USC the week before, for the first time in six years (and as statisticians point out only the second time in 13 years, though as most statisticians ignored, also the tenth time in 21 years), and I was sure that the team was still savoring that win. I know I was, and for the first time in memory I was sitting in the stands at the Rose Bowl, not particularly enthusiastic about the game unfolding in front of me. Plus Stanford really needed the win. Consequently I expected UCLA to play much better in the rematch.

The second reason was that Stanford had played three emotional, must win games in a row against Oregon State, Oregon, and then UCLA. It is my strong belief that no team can bring its "A" game four weeks in a row--it just isn't humanly possible. Just go back to UCLA's stunning 13-9 win over USC in 2006. Even though most observers had mailed in a USC win even before the game, USC had won three straight games against tough, ranked opponents, Cal, Oregon and Notre Dame, and was bound to have the letdown that they did. While the Bruins played a gutty game that night, SC's off night was also a major factor in the loss that knocked them out of the BCS championship game. As such, I did not expect Stanford to play their best game last night.

As things turned out, I was right on both counts. Where UCLA was unable to run the football the week before, this week they shredded Stanford's seemingly impenetrable rushing defense. And UCLA's defense really stepped up its overall performance against Stanford. Yet, in the end, Stanford won again despite a performance which upset Stanford coach Shaw throughout the game. Bruin fans lament the nearly "Pick 6" thrown by Hundley early in the game with UCLA leading by 14-7 and threatening to score again. UCLA fans also point to the Bruins' statistical advantage and declared that despite the score, UCLA was the better team that day. But while I was certainly extremely disappointed by the loss, I don't look at the "what if's" or think that UCLA should have won, though I agree that they could have pulled it out.

With regard to the apparently game changing interception, I don't think that changed the ultimate outcome. Through 50 years of watching football and other sports, I have concluded that some games are meant to come down to the wire, and that the details of the game coming up to crunch time are nearly irrelevant. Yes, if Hundley didn't throw the interception UCLA might have gone up 21-7 or 17-7, but under those circumstances I believe the game would have unfolded differently. Athletic contests are interactive events, and when one team does something, the other team responds. You can't assume that if you change the outcome of one play in a game that everything else would be the same. And in a what turns out to be a close game there is just going to be an ebb and flow.

My other behavioral observation from years of watching sports is that the "better" team is the one which performs when it counts. Statistically and aesthetically, UCLA did look like the better football team. But the important thing is who came through at crunch time. Last night, despite having the better offensive performance, UCLA did not score in the fourth quarter, when the game was on the line, while Stanford scored 10 points, which was sufficient to give them a 3 point win.

So while I was terribly disappointed in the outcome of the game, I was pretty much over the loss fairly quickly. In hindsight, Stanford is a great team, significantly better than UCLA, and UCLA was fortunate in being in a position to possibly win the game at the end. It was a game that UCLA could have won if everything went right, but not one which they should have won.

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