By ANTONIO GONZALEZ
AP Sports Writer
STANFORD, Calif. — As part of senior day celebrations held earlier this month for Stanford’s final home game of the regular season, outgoing players wore T-shirts that read: “Last Walk.”
Time to bring those mementos out of the closet.
“We’re going to have to change the date of our last walk T-shirt,” fifth-year linebacker Chase Thomas said Sunday. “Put some tape over it or something.”
The Pac-12 Conference championship game is coming to The Farm a year later than everybody expected — and for a matchup nobody could’ve predicted.
While Andrew Luck is gone, the eighth-ranked Cardinal (10-2, 8-1) are surprisingly where they’ve wanted to be all along: hosting the league title game Friday night in a quick rematch against No. 17 UCLA (9-3, 6-3), which overtook preseason No. 1 Southern California to capture the South Division crown.
So much for that Oregon-USC showdown so many had forecast this fall.
“I remember when nobody was giving us a look down at the Pac-12 media day,” Thomas said. “I told them, ‘It was the same thing when Toby (Gerhart) left. It was the same thing when (Jim) Harbaugh left. It was the same thing when Andrew left.’ I guess people out there just don’t get it.
“They don’t understand what type of guys we have on this team. The kind of coaches we have. We’re not going away. We’re not a one-person team. We never have been. So people can think what they want. We know this team is going to be around for a while.”
A week after Stanford stunned Oregon in overtime, the Cardinal crushed the Bruins 35-17 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday to seal the North Division title and set up a strange sequel. Rarely do teams ever play twice in the same season in college football, and even rarer does that happen in back-to-back weeks.
That’s the kind of season it has been in the Pac-12 Conference.
Stanford’s only league loss came at Washington in the fourth game of the season, losing 17-13 on a Thursday night when the offense failed to score a touchdown. Cardinal coach David Shaw replaced quarterback Josh Nunes after eight games with redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan, who has beaten three ranked teams — Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA — in his first three career starts to give the nation’s top rushing defense some support.
The Bruins lost to Oregon State and at California before winning five straight — the program’s longest winning streak in seven years — a run capped with a thrilling 38-28 victory against the crosstown rival Trojans.
Stanford had to win its finale in Pasadena just to get another shot at UCLA because No. 6 Oregon (11-1, 8-1) beat Oregon State 48-24 in the Civil War rivalry that finished about 10 minutes before the Cardinal and Bruins began their game in front of a sellout crowd the Rose Bowl.
Turns out, that was just a dress rehearsal.
“I cannot recall ever being in this situation before,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “I don’t know that it benefits either team, or is hard on any team. It just comes down to going out on Friday night and executing. Any familiarity we have with them, they’ll have with us. It just kind of negates each other.”
Shaw and Mora will rely on their NFL coaching experience to guide them this week. While pro teams often play divisional opponents twice in three games, consecutive matchups are almost unheard of at any level.
The Cardinal controlled the first go-around and left no secrets about what they plan to do.
Stepfan Taylor rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns, Hogan passed for 160 yards and another score and Stanford ran away with its fourth victory in a row over the Bruins. Brett Hundley, UCLA’s redshirt freshman quarterback, was 20 of 38 for 261 yards and a TD with one interception while getting sacked seven times.
UCLA’s hopes to play in the program’s first Rose Bowl game since 1999 will not be any easier this week.
Stanford has won eight straight and 19 of its past 20 home games, with the lone loss coming to Oregon last season. The Cardinal, riding a six-game winning streak, are looking to seal a spot in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2000.
The Cardinal already secured three straight 10-win seasons for the first time in school history. The senior class, which figured their playing days at Stanford Stadium might’ve ended when they rallied to beat Oregon State 27-23 on Nov. 10, has a chance to go out with three consecutive 11-win seasons — all ending in different BCS bowls.
“We kind of did the senior day last time we were in the stadium, not knowing when those guys were going to be back, really thinking the next time they would be back in there would be graduation,” Shaw said. “Now getting one more game is special for those guys. They’re real excited about it. I think you get an idea of what our team is like because our younger guys are excited for our seniors. It’s not just that they’re excited to be in the game. They’re excited that the seniors get to come in the stadium one more time. I think that shows how tight of a team we are.”