The Ghost of Trojan Past.
On the night that Reggie Bush made his first appearance around the USC football program since the NCAA levied down sanctions on the Trojans because of Bush, another No. 5 haunted USC.
Christian McCaffrey had 461 all-purpose yards. USC had 456. McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ NCAA record for most all-purpose yards for a single season. He ran for a score. He caught a touchdown and he even passed for another. He did it all.
None of the USC defenders were willing to put Bush and McCaffrey in the same category, but they were definitely impressed.
"Nah. There will never be another Reggie Bush, but he definitely deserves the Heisman,” USC’s best defender, Su’a Cravens said. “I mean, what doesn't he do? He catches the ball in the back field, makes the guy miss and takes it to the house. Rushes the ball inside and on the edge and scores with any play they draw for him. He's just a special guy. In my opinion, he should win the Heisman.”
McCaffrey’s teammates agreed with Cravens’ assessment, chanting “Heisman! Heisman! Heisman!” after the game as he was named the MVP of the game.
Like Bush did while wearing the cardinal and gold, the Cardinal’s playmaker did it in all facets. McCaffrey carried the ball 32 times for 207 yards. He caught four passes for 105 yards. He added another 149 yards in the return game.
“It’s very hard to do punt return, kick return,” USC running back Justin Davis said. “He’s playing like he’s playing in high school. He’s making it look so easy. It’s hard to do what he’s doing in college. It just proves that I think he should win the Heisman.”
In September, McCaffrey had a good game against the Trojans, but not anything that conjured images of USC’s No. 5. That’s why the Trojans defense didn’t draw up anything new or innovative to try to stop McCaffrey. Their game plan “going in was pretty much the same.” There were some adjustments and tweaks, but USC felt a handful of plays Stanford had won were the difference.
But on Saturday night, “they just played better than us,” senior linebacker Anthony Sarao said. And by “they” Sarao could have just said “Christian” or “McCaffrey” because he was the real Trojan killer. Stanford had just 105 non-McCaffrey yards.
McCaffrey didn't hurdle a defender while diving for the pylon. He didn't pull the emergency brake while running up the sideline and then cut back for a lengthy touchdown run. But when McCaffrey carried the ball, he stayed behind his linemen until he saw a crease to run through. He never forced the issue. When USC thought they had a nice stop, he fell forward and inevitably ended up getting three or four yards.
“He doesn’t just shove it up in there to where we would just be able to take him down. What he does do, he reads stuff well,” Sarao said. “He bleeds. That’s what you don’t want as a defense. You don’t want to get a two-yard stop and then it bleeds and ends up a five-yard gain.
The Trojans tried to keep him in between the tackles, but he was able to bounce it outside, getting on the edge where he broke some defenders ankles en route to big gains.
“I wouldn’t compare him to our No. 5 whatsoever because I don’t think he’s as fast or as explosive as him, but he’s a smart player,” Sarao said. “He’s very patient as a runner and I think he fits perfectly into their scheme. He’s a great player. All hypes go to him. He earned my respect this game.”
If he wasn’t as explosive as Bush, it was hard to tell.
He had a 20-yard run on Stanford’s first drive. He ran for 23 yards to get the Cardinal in field goal position on its second drive. McCaffrey began the next drive with a 50-yard run and set up the following drive with a 31-yard punt return.
USC got back in the game in the third quarter by stopping McCaffrey. After the Trojans scored on their opening drive, they held McCaffrey to only had seven yards on four carries when the Cardinal took over for its opening second half drive. USC followed with a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to come out of nowhere and take its first lead of the game, 16-13.
The Trojans had taken all the momentum. Stanford knew it had to get the ball into McCaffrey’s hands. He ran the ball on first down and second down. USC held him to four yards bringing up a third-and-6. The Trojan faithful rose to their feet and brought Levi’s Stadium to its loudest roar since the stadium opened.
Call McCaffrey the silencer.
Coming out of the backfield, he ran an angle route, threw a juke and was wide open over the middle. USC had been caught in man defense and sophomore linebacker Olajuwon Tucker stood no chance against the shifty moves of Stanford’s No. 5. Third-and-6 turned into first-and-goal after McCaffrey caught the pass and took it 67 yards. The Cardinal scored the next play to retake the lead and never trailed again.
“It changed the game in a big way,” USC linebacker Scott Felix said. Our momentum was building up. McCaffrey like he always does, makes a play. That was like we had a balloon blowing up and that just popped the balloon.”
“That was the stake in the coffin to be honest,” Cravens said. “We were struggling all night to get off the field on third down. For us to go up and them to just score, it kind of took our breath away and our momentum.”
Stanford got a defensive touchdown and kept adding to its margin by putting the ball in McCaffrey’s hands in the fourth quarter. Leading 27-22, Stanford faced another third down. USC sent a blitz that didn’t get there and quarterback Kevin Hogan found a wide open McCaffrey on a short check down. Check down turned touchdown. McCaffrey took it 28 yards to the end zone.
The next drive McCaffrey capped off his impressive night with a 10-yard touchdown run for the 41-22 final margin. He ran left and while Trojan defenders dove at him, he waltzed into the end zone. It was a final reminder of how another No. 5 had once made things look so easy.