A little more than five minutes remained in the third quarter last Saturday night when Stanford got the ball back with an 11-point lead. Oregon State threw up everything short of Mount Hood to stop what it knew was coming – a downhill flow of humanity dressed in white. The Beavers stacked eight and nine on the line. It wasn’t enough. Stanford chewed right through them.
Four times on the drive that iced the game, a sophomore who is thinking about declaring science, technology and society as his major uploaded his 6-foot, 200-pound mainframe onto Oregon State. Christian McCaffrey sidestepped people, blasted through them, carried them for a ride. The Cardinal went to him four straight times, and he picked up 11, 13, eight and seven yards.
Barry Sanders Jr. scored the touchdown on an 11-yard run, but it is McCaffrey who has become the face of the team. The portrait was snapped the third game of the season, when McCaffrey gained 115 yards on 26 carries in Stanford’s 41-31 victory over USC. McCaffrey followed up with 206 yards on 30 carries in the 42-24 win against Oregon State.
The back-to-back big games established McCaffrey as the heir to Stanford football’s philosophical legacy. A coach and a quarterback – Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck – turned the program around, but a strong running game has sustained it. From 2008-13, Stanford’s lead running back averaged 1,452 rushing yards per season – and that’s just on the totals of Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney. Now it’s McCaffrey’s turn; he’s averaging 111 yards in four games.
1,452 Yards per season averaged by Stanford’s lead running back from 2008-13
“We’ve established kind of who we are. And a two-score lead in the second half? That’s what we’re going to do,” Stanford coach David Shaw said after practice Tuesday when asked about the third-quarter drive against Oregon State. “We’re going to run the ball and we’re going to be physical. The second part is what we’ve put on Christian this offseason, about being bigger, stronger and more physical and being able to handle a load like that. And he’s held up his end of the bargain.”
Stylistically, McCaffrey is a power runner with speed and elusiveness. A good receiver out of the backfield, he also leads Stanford in catches with 13. He returns punts and kickoffs, too, and is Stanford’s top all-purpose guy with 222 yards a game.
Like the backs who came before him, McCaffrey has synchronized his abilities with those of his brutish blockers, the latest in a generation of Stanford offensive linemen who make it their goal to take control of every game by about the 40th minute – just like they and McCaffrey did against Oregon State.
“Those guys do not stop,” McCaffrey said. “They continuously have a motor. As a running back, it’s fun to run behind.”
Much of McCaffrey’s success has come on dishes to the left, behind tackle Kyle Murphy and guard Joshua Garnett. An affinity has taken hold between the three, and McCaffrey affectionately calls the senior captains “two of the toughest, meanest guys I’ve ever met.”
Murphy and Garnett each weigh more than 300 pounds. They speak in glowing terms of their lead tailback, who is two years younger and only two-thirds their size.
“He will run you over,” Garnett said. “He’s a speed guy and he’s real shifty, but I’ve seen him lower his shoulder. People say ‘speed, speed, speed,’ but he’s a Stanford running back at the end of the day.”
He breaks arm tackles like it’s nothing.
Stanford offensive tackle Kyle Murphy, on running back Christian McCaffrey
Murphy said McCaffrey helped set the tone for the team when he gained 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason to properly align his game with the Cardinal’s ruffian image.
“He breaks arm tackles like it’s nothing,” Murphy said.
McCaffrey also endeared himself with the offensive line after the USC game when he took them out for Double-Doubles at In-N-Out. “He’s looking out for the big dogs,” Murphy said.
McCaffrey is the son of Ed McCaffrey, another Stanford man who caught passes as a collegian in Palo Alto. As a 13-year pro, Dad hauled in 565 of them for the Giants, 49ers and Broncos. He won two Super Bowls in Denver, where he raised his family in the suburbs.
Ed McCaffrey is his son’s role model, as it should be, but Christian McCaffrey grew up to be a runner rather than a catcher. He papered his bedroom as a kid with posters of Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Bo Jackson and Jim Brown.
“My goal was always to be like all of them,” McCaffrey said. “It’s so hard to try to emulate someone. I just try to do as much as I can and be as versatile as possible.”
As McCaffrey takes his place in the Stanford lineage, Cardinal insiders say nobody works harder; he spends extra time watching film – his intensity and love for the game push him to learn everything he can about it. They say he’s a great teammate who makes the other Stanford backs better, and he gets better from being pushed by them.
Stanford, ranked 18th in this week’s Associated Press poll, plays Arizona at home Saturday night. If you’re the Wildcats, McCaffrey will be the guy you don’t want to see if you fall behind in the second half.