If that’s the last we’ll see of Christian McCaffrey at Stanford Stadium, he made sure that his final home game was a memorable one: 204 yards on the ground, a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown and 271 all-purpose yards as No. 24 Stanford stomped Rice 41-17 to finish out the regular season at 9-3.
Stanford 41, Rice 17: Postgame Wrap-Up
Of course, it’s pointless -- yet inevitable -- to speculate on whether this will, indeed, be McCaffrey’s final game on The Farm. As expected, though, McCaffrey and Solomon Thomas both sidestepped the pointed inquiries from the media after the game, and in all likelihood, we’ll remain in the dark until after the bowl game.
According to McCaffrey, anyway, he doesn’t know what he’s planning to do, either.
“I'm just focused on this next game,” McCaffrey said. “I haven't made a decision. And I think it's a disservice to my teammates to make an announcement or anything right now. So I'm going to think about it and really work on it. But as of now, it's get back Monday, get back to practice, and get back to working on my craft.”
McCaffrey didn’t quite replicate his eye-popping 284-yard rushing performance from last week’s Big Game victory, but his 30 carries for 204 yards and a touchdown helped bail out a Stanford team that won comfortably against a severely outmatched opponent, but was still plagued by the familiar handcuffs of dumb penalties and head-scratching decisions.
It looked like it would be as easy as advertised in the early goings, with a 62-yard scramble for a touchdown from Keller Chryst setting the stage for a 13-point first quarter.
But Stanford’s offense, despite a plethora of big plays, found itself moving backwards more than it would have liked and unable to convert on third downs, particularly in the red zone, where Stanford only scored one touchdown on its three meaningful red zone possessions.
A team of Stanford’s caliber and talent shouldn’t have to settle for field goals against a defense like Rice -- Conrad Ukropina’s highlight tape for his eventual NFL scouting be darned. Nor should Stanford be facing 13 third downs against a defense like Rice (Stanford only converted on six of those 13 situations, by the way).
That said, the big plays were absolutely there, with McCaffrey catching a pass for a touchdown one play after a big punt return and Bryce Love taking a reverse 50 yards to the house to go with the newest addition to Stanford’s “guess who else can beat cornerbacks on deep routes now” train, Francis Owusu.
The left side of the offensive line, in particular, struggled with penalties and pass protection, with even Nate Herbig having an uncharacteristically shaky game while protecting Keller Chryst’s blind side.
Speaking of Chryst, the Stanford quarterback continued his marked improvement towards the end of the season, as he was clearly making good reads through his progressions and hitting his receivers in stride for the most part. He finished a very Kevin Hogan-like 11-of-16 for 154 yards and two touchdowns, and didn’t throw a pick for the fourth consecutive game.
“Once again, not perfect, but we don't expect that,” Shaw said. “We expect him to be better and better and better. He did a great job managing the game, which gets the negative connotation around the college football world, which is fine. Don't worry about that. But he made some great throws.”
Over the last four games, Keller is 53-for-82 (65 percent) with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Of course, that should be taken with the caveat that he hasn’t exactly played against the premier defenses of the game, but it’s certainly a good sign moving forward, especially since Shaw is convinced that Keller is still scratching the surface of his potential.
Shaw was asked after the game whether this season would be considered “disappointing” by his standards -- and he was quick to deny anything of the sort.
“Where we got and where we are right now -- 9-3, we earned it,” Shaw said. “In the negative way and the positive way. We earned our way to where we are.”
Think about the journey it’s taken to get here -- six different iterations of the offensive line, coming back from the 5-point atrocity against Colorado, getting curbstomped by the Washington schools, but still beating USC, UCLA, Cal and Notre Dame.
And impossibly, through what seemed to be a lost season at its halfway point, Stanford should be favored to win its bowl game and emerge with another 10-win season -- its sixth in the last seven years. McCaffrey, unbelievably, averaged more rushing yards per game and more yards per rush this season than he did last year -- running behind six different offensive lines (including a true freshman), no less.
Look at the horrendous messes right now at Texas, Oregon, Notre Dame or UCLA -- and then look back at Stanford. Dallas Lloyd said in his postgame interview half-jokingly that Stanford fans have been spoiled -- and they have.
Unlike those other programs, Stanford had the grit and leadership to turn it around despite getting in its own way more often than it would have liked -- and has some solid late-season momentum to show for it. This game was the culmination of that -- and hopefully, the bowl game will be the cherry on top.
“Everybody's hyping us up in the beginning of the year,” McCaffrey said. “We lose three in the middle of the season, and then it's like we're the laughing stock of everyone. And it's been a kind of a consistent message that we tell our guys, is that it really is us against the world at the end of the day and it's our backs against the wall.”