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Andy Furillo: Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey back in running for Heisman

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (5) looks for yardage against Cal in the second half of the 118th Big Game on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Stanford, Calif.
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (5) looks for yardage against Cal in the second half of the 118th Big Game on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Stanford, Calif. The Associated Press

It’s late November and your guy just posted a smasher, and you’re playing Notre Dame the next week on national TV, so why not let it rip that you think you’ve got the best college football player in the country?

David Shaw did exactly that the other night on behalf of the kid on his team who wears No. 5.

“Has anybody seen a running back – I’ll say this, a football player – better than Christian McCaffrey this year?” Stanford’s coach asked Saturday night after his Cardinal’s 35-22 Big Game win over Cal. “Tell me. Show him to me. I haven’t seen anybody.”

Shaw delivered his remarks at a timely moment in the assessment of the nation’s best collegians in pads. Despite McCaffrey’s terrific year, he had fallen off the top tier of Heisman Trophy candidates, relegated to the happy hour debates. Prime-time discussion had been reserved for Derrick Henry of Alabama, Deshaun Watson of Clemson, Leonard Fournette of LSU, Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State and Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma.

The weekend shake-out shook McCaffrey right back into the thick of the mix.

Many voters might not agree with Shaw. But even if the sophomore running back doesn’t become Stanford’s first Heisman winner since Jim Plunkett in 1970, he at least deserves the trip to New York to sit with the finalists when the trophy is presented to the winner.

Against Cal, McCaffrey broke the school record for all-purpose yards in a game when he ran for 192, caught a touchdown pass for 49 and returned kicks for 148, for a total of 389. His touchdown reception looked as if it spilled from the brush of Van Gogh. He took a screen pass and ran through two Cal defenders. Then he faked another tackler into a heap and shifted into high to weave up the field for the score. He also gaffed the Bears with a 98-yard kickoff return for another touchdown.

389 All-purpose yards, a Stanford record, by Christian McCaffrey against Cal

McCaffrey leads America with 2,807 all-purpose yards this year, nearly 50 yards a game better than the No. 2 guy in the country – Tyler Ervin of San Jose State, for you Spartans out there. The total is the eighth best in major-college history, dating to Plato’s opening of the Academy several seasons back.

With three games to go – Notre Dame, the Pacific-12 Conference championship game and a bowl – McCaffrey likely will break the all-time mark of 3,250 set in 1988 by Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders, who won the Heisman Trophy for his achievement.

“I’m not really focused on all the individual statistics right now or anything like that,” McCaffrey said after the Cal game. “If that does happen, great. If not, I’m not focused on that right now. We’re just focused on winning this next game.”

McCaffrey may not be focused on statistics, or the Heisman, but if you’re a college football fan and it’s on your focus list, here are a couple of things to consider:

One, McCaffrey has run for 1,546 yards from scrimmage – 20 more than Henry. You don’t mean to demean Henry, lest he punch you in the mouth with one of those stiff-arms he’s been nailing guys with all year in the Southeastern Conference. Did you see the LSU game? Henry had one run where he peppered left jabs into the face of Tigers safety Jamal Adams while they ran about 20 yards up the sideline. You waited for Henry to stop, plant and cross with the right. But in other bouts, Henry’s handlers put him in with palookas such as Charleston Southern, Middle Tennessee and Louisiana-Monroe. None are contenders.

3,250 All-purpose yards, an NCAA record, by Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders in 1988

Two, a few of the other top Heisman challengers didn’t show their best stuff on the third Saturday in November. It’s a serious showcase weekend in the college football season, unless you’re in the SEC and your Nov. 21 opponent was Charleston Southern, or Florida Atlantic, or The Citadel (which beat South Carolina, by the way), or Georgia Southern, or Charlotte, or Idaho. On this pivotal day, Elliott gained only 33 yards on 12 carries in Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State. Fournette had a so-so 108 yards on 25 carries in a loss to Ole Miss. Mayfield completed 9 of 20 for 127 yards in a win over TCU. Henry gained 68 yards on nine carries against Charleston Southern. All totals should count against the players’ Heisman chances, Alabama for scheduling that game at all.

So we circle back to McCaffrey, and the esteem in which he is held by his coach. With Stanford playing a lot of night games this year, Shaw said he has had occasion to do some work with the clicker. Zigging and zagging across the country by remote control, he said he has seen plenty of games, and players, and that he has formed a conclusion bathed in objectivity regarding McCaffrey.

“I have not seen anybody in America like this kid,” Shaw said. “He’s truly, truly special. Kickoff returner, runner, receiver, blocker – he got a couple nice blocks today. The kid’s just truly, truly special. And our guys know that and they take a lot of pride in blocking for him down the field because the guy makes special, special plays.”

Now, here come the Irish. Historically excellent and steeped in lore, Notre Dame was fourth in last week’s College Football Playoff rankings. They are 10-1, with their only loss coming on the road, in the rain, by two points, to No. 1 Clemson.

Like it or not, when Notre Dame plays, people listen. Let’s see what the Heisman voters hear from McCaffrey.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo