In the three weeks following The Big Game, the Cardinal took care of business, beating Washington State, Colorado and Oregon State to set up an enormous rematch against the team that was a thorn in their side all of Zach’s career in Palo Alto: the No. 1 ranked Oregon Ducks.
Zach and Co. traveled to the always-wild Autzen Stadium on Nov. 17, and the game of the year followed. The Ducks clung to a one-touchdown lead for most of the second half, and in one of their final chances late in the fourth quarter, the Cardinal looked to their go-to tight end.
Kevin Hogan, making just his second start for Stanford, first found No. 86 on a 2nd-and-2 for a big first down that put the Cardinal across midfield. Two plays later, Hogan looked to Ertz again, and he grabbed another massive reception, and Zach threw a vicious stiff arm to his defender, making it a 22-yard gain down the right side with just over three minutes to go.
“It was a very physical game from start to finish,” Zach said. “They had a very good defense coming into the game, and their offense kind of spoke for itself. We knew going in that the defense was going to have to play great, or we were going to have to score a lot of points on offense—and we got kind of a mixture of the two.”
While the drive was looking good, Stanford still needed points, trailing 14-7. After a first-down stop, Oregon nearly came up with a game-sealing play. Hogan looked left at Zach, and the ball instead found the hands of All-American corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. The only thing that prevented the pick-six was No. 86, who prevented the Duck corner from pulling in the interception.
On 3rd-and-10, Hogan was nearly sacked, but he threaded the needle to his security blanket: No. 86. But the rushed throw left Zach one yard shy of the first down at Oregon’s 12-yard line. Fortunately, Stanford’s power game paid off on fourth down, and Zach’s close friend Ryan Hewitt dove over the pile a first down.
Then on first and goal, there was no question whom Hogan was targeting. He looked left the whole way, and on a short drop, he fired a jump ball to his big tight end, and Zach won the jump ball over Ekpre-Olomu.
However, initially, it was called incomplete. Blanketed by Oregon’s star corner, Zach was bobbling the ball on the way down, but after what felt like an hour-long review, the call was overturned. Zach gained possession while on top of Ekpre-Olomu, and his right shoulder hit the turf first—and a Jordan Williamson PAT tied the game at 14.
The game then went to overtime, and Oregon kicker Alejandro Maldonado missed from 41 yards out. On its ensuing possession, the Cardinal succeeded where the Ducks couldn’t, and Williamson was good from 37 yards away, giving the Cardinal a 17-14 upset win, ending the top-ranked Ducks’ hopes at a national title.
“They’ve always been a great team and for those two years where they beat us and ended our aspirations for a national championship, it was very sweet to do that to them,” Zach said. “Going into that game, they were No. 1. It was a huge game for us, it was on primetime, and we were just able to go out there and put a good team win together, and it was a game I’ll never forget.”
CHAMPION AND ALL-AMERICAN
While that game killed Oregon’s national title dreams, it breathed life into Stanford’s hopes for a Pac-12 Championship. The Cardinal beat UCLA twice in the next two weeks: a 35-17 win in the regular season, and a 27-24 victory in the Pac-12 title game.
“Our goal each and every year was to win the Pac-12 championship, and my first three years, we weren’t able to do that,” Zach said. “But that last year we were able to get over that hump, and it was very, very gratifying. We put so much work into it, and to have it unfold the way it did was great for us.”
The win in the conference championship game also solidified Stanford’s third consecutive BCS berth. But this one was just a bit sweeter than the rest: The Cardinal were going back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1999.
They were matched up with a similar, physical foe in the Big 10 champion Wisconsin Badgers, and Zach played a big role in setting up early scoring drives in Pasadena.
He hauled in a nine-yard reception on the first drive, which ended in a 16-yard scoring run from Kelsey Young. On Stanford’s next drive, Hogan worked a play action on 1st-and-10 from around midfield, he was rocked as he released the football, but he found his go-to guy over the top. No. 86 has beaten the UW coverage and pulled down a 43-yard reception between two defenders. Stepfan Taylor punched in a three-yard score on the very next play, and Stanford was up 14-0.
The Badgers were determined to prevent a rout, however. They tallied two touchdowns in the second quarter, with a Williamson field goal sandwiched in between to make it 17-14, Cardinal, at the break.
Defense dominated the second half, but late in the fourth quarter, Ertz pulled in the final reception of his career: a nine-yard gain to help set up the final score of the contest: a 22-yard Williamson field goal that sealed Stanford’s 20-14 win.
That final season, Stanford recorded its first Pac-12 championship since 1999, and its first Rose Bowl win since 1971. With those momentous achievements in hand, and a unanimous All-American distinction, Zach knew he had done all he could on the field at the collegiate level.
“Those two were huge for me personally and for the Stanford program,” Zach said of winning the conference and Rose Bowl championships. “After those two victories, that’s when I kind of knew I had accomplished all I could accomplish at Stanford. I had a ton of fun doing it with a lot of great teammates and people and that was kind of the end of my run at Stanford.”
His accomplishments off the field were paramount as well. He was on track to graduate at the end of the spring semester with a degree in management science and engineering.
“The graduation was a big thing. I knew I was going to be able to graduate in the spring and Coach Shaw had advised me to go pro as well. He said, ‘You’ve kind of accomplished all you needed at this level, and if you want to go pro, you have my full backing.’ That was big for me. It let me know that I was ready.”