The desperate hour came to Stanford around 7 o’clock in Saturday night’s Pacific-12 Conference championship game, and in the moment of crisis, the Cardinal knew who to call.
Enter Christian McCaffrey, the king of all purpose – again and again, to lead Stanford to a 41-22 victory and its third Pac-12 football championship in four years.
McCaffrey finished with 461 all-purpose yards to give him 3,496 on the season and break the NCAA record of 3,250 that Barry Sanders has held since 1988.
The prize for the Cardinal is an appearance in the Rose Bowl. But the bigger gift eluded Stanford on Saturday when Alabama beat Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game and Clemson handled North Carolina for the Atlantic Coast Conference title to deprive the Cardinal of any chance of appearing in the College Football Playoff.
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“We’ll go down to Pasadena and have a great time,” Stanford coach David Shaw said, although he also advocated for an expanded playoff that would include the champions of the nation’s five so-called power conferences.
Earlier in the week, Shaw said he he wasn’t losing any sleep worrying whether the Cardinal would make the final four. Early in the third quarter, a bigger concern was just beating the Trojans.
His team owned the first half but led only 13-3 at the break. USC then scored on its first two possessions in the third quarter, the second on a 27-yard run by Ronald Jones, to take a 16-13 lead. To compound Shaw’s difficulties, the Trojans defense stuck the Cardinal on its next possession with a third and six, on the end of the field where most of the USC fans had congregated. With momentum on their side, the Cardinal and Gold boosters turned up the volume.
That’s when the McCaffrey Show, spectacular in the first half, picked up where it left off.
McCaffrey sped down the open middle of the field. Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan delivered the ball to him in stride, and he sprinted to the USC 7-yard-line to complete a 67-yard play. Hogan ran it in from there to give Stanford a lead it didn’t give back.
Of course it was McCaffrey who made sure Stanford stayed in front.
The Trojans overcame a Stanford defensive touchdown by tackle Solomon Thomas on the old sack-and-run play to stay within one score into the fourth quarter, and then they got Stanford into another third-down situation with a little over 12 minutes to go. When nobody was looking, McCaffrey slid out of the backfield and again found a spot the USC defense vacated. Hogan found McCaffrey, and McCaffrey found the end zone on a 28-yard play.
For the night, McCaffrey carried the ball 32 times for 207 yards, caught four passes for 105, returned five kicks for 120 and brought back two punts for 29 yards. He scored two touchdowns, including a 10-yard run in the fourth quarter, and he threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Hogan on a throwback.
It might be tough for McCaffrey to overtake Derrick Henry of Alabama or Deshaun Watson of Clemson in the Heisman Trophy balloting, but it would seem he should be a finalist and get himself a trip to New York City for the presentation.
“I would love to go,” McCaffrey said.
In the first quarter, the Cardinal held the ball for all but two minutes and 25 seconds and outgained USC 117-17. McCaffrey ran for 93 yards in the first period.
On the first play of the second quarter, McCaffrey split out to the left, took a pitch from Hogan on a reverse and then pitched it back to the wide-open quarterback for a touchdown.