Stanford Rides McCaffrey to Pac-12 Championship, Rose Bowl

By: Ben Leonard

What’s that sweet smell? That’s right, you’re smelling roses. 

Christian McCaffrey literally did everything — running, throwing, and catching a touchdown while breaking Barry Sanders’ single-season all-purpose yards record, carrying Stanford to a 41-22 victory over USC in the Pac-12 title game that will send them to Pasadena, and McCaffrey to New York. His 461 all-purpose yards had the crowd chanting “Heis-man! Heis-man!” after the game — too bad they don’t get Heisman votes, because they’ve got it right.

Quarterback Kevin Hogan also accomplished the same touchdown trifecta on the same night, becoming the first Stanford player in 20 years to have such a feat. With his 461 (!!!) all-purpose yards McCaffrey made some major history of his own, becoming the first Stanford player to eclipse 400 in a game, breaking his own school record of 389 (vs. Cal) and passing Sanders’ once-mythical record of 3,250 yards.

In case you haven’t noticed, Stanford has established a dynasty in the Pac-12, winning three of the last four Pac-12 championships. And they’re here to stay. They looked dynastic throughout most of the first half — until they reached the red zone. It felt eerily like Stanford’s loss to the Trojans in USC — move easily down the field, and implode in the red zone. They made four trips to the red zone in the first half, and ended up scoring just thirteen points. McCaffrey did have his second passing touchdown of the season, connecting with Kevin Hogan on a little floater for their only touchdown of the half, but it wasn’t enough to keep the Trojans at bay.

USC’s defense pulled their best Stanford bend-but-don’t-break defense, tightening up when it mattered — and it felt like it was going to end up costing the Cardinal. USC had accumulated just nine (yes, that’s not a typo), nine yards in the first 26 minutes of the game, but they were only down 13-0 with four minutes left in the half after a big stop on downs for USC’s defense.

Stanford had the ball on fourth and goal from USC’s one, but Porter Gustin sacked Hogan, shifting the momentum in USC’s favor. The Trojans would march 71 yards down the field to kick a field goal and cut Stanford’s halftime lead to 13-3, one that could have been (and probably should have been) 28-3. With Ronnie Harris and Alaijah Holder both back, Stanford’s defense was unrecognizable in the first half — they locked down stud quarterback Cody Kessler, holding him to just 42 first half passing yards, 41 of which came on the last drive. The last time Stanford held USC to 3 points at halftime was in 2001 –but even though they held the ball for almost 22 minutes in the first half, the offense squandered too many opportunities to put USC away. 

USC came storming back in the second half — and it looked like there was going to be no stopping them. While Stanford’s offense sputtered, they scored two straight touchdowns to start the second half, taking a 16-13 lead that should have been 17, but Stanford blocked their PAT attempt. The Trojans were slicing and dicing Stanford’s front seven to the tune of 95 rushing yards on those drives, capped by a Cody Kessler passing touchdown and a 27-yard Ronald Jones rushing touchdown.

But Stanford came back with a momentum swing of its own. Faced with third and long from their own 26 and the prospect of having to stop USC again, McCaffrey created some instant offense with a 67-yard receiving touchdown, scampering in untouched to take back the lead. McCaffrey was the team’s leading receiver with 105 yards on four catches.

He also ran for 207 yards and a touchdown — what a Heisman moment. Too bad it probably won’t matter, since North Carolina lost to Clemson, ending Stanford’s playoff hopes and McCaffrey’s Heisman hopes along with them in one fell swoop. There’s no question that he’ll still get invited to New York — it’s just that everyone worships the ever-so-holy SEC, and likewise, Derrick Henry, who ran for 189 yards against Florida. McCaffrey is the most dynamic player in college football, but even with the otherworldly game on Saturday, he won’t receive enough recognition outside of the West to take home the stiff-arm trophy.

Solomon Thomas, who had a breakout game with two sacks, kept the momentum going right after McCaffrey’s long receiving touchdown, working a thirty-two-yard scoop-‘n-score after Blake Martinez forced Kessler to fumble that silenced USC fans and extended Stanford lead to 27-16. The former five-star recruit had just one sack all season, but was a big part of why Stanford was able to corral USC’s stable of backs to just 170 yards.

After a USC score and failed two-point conversion, Stanford would add two more touchdowns to seal the deal. Fittingly, McCaffrey had the one to put it on ice, a ten yard touchdown that sent USC fans filing for the exits, only to wait for hours in Levi’s Stadium traffic. It was his second game this season with 100+ receiving and rushing yards, while the rest of the FBS also has two. If that’s not convincing, Heisman voters, I don’t know what is.

The most impressive part of Stanford’s win is that they did it all without much from Kevin Hogan. Being his efficient self, he dropped back twelve times and completed nine of those pass attempts for 144 yards, but he really wasn’t the one driving the offense — McCaffrey did all the heavy lifting.  After last week’s pass-happy performance, Stanford has proven that it can win on the ground or through the air. Get ready to pick your poison, B1G.

Unfortunately for Stanford fans, it will take a miracle (like a David Shaw smiling miracle) for Stanford to make the playoff. Shaw did crack a grin tonight, so hey, anything’s possible. Neither Florida nor North Carolina took care of business in their respective conference championship games, so it looks like Stanford will just have to “settle” for a Rose Bowl — a sign of how far this program has come.

Cover Image: Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, center, presents the MVP trophy to Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey (5) after Stanford defeated Southern California 41-22 in the Pac-12 championship football game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Santa Clara, Calif. At right is Stanford coach David Shaw. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)