Rose Bowl Caps “What Could Have Been” Season For McCaffrey, Cardinal

By Ben Leonard

You know who Christian McCaffrey is now, Iowa? Also to you, Cole Fisher. Want to take this back?

With its dominant 45-16 win the 102nd Rose Bowl Game, McCaffrey and Stanford showed the nation who they really are: a team with the talent to beat anyone in the nation, with a deserving Heisman in the backfield. Just a bit too late. Still, we want ‘Bama.

The carnage started right off the bat for Iowa — on the first play from scrimmage, McCaffrey wooshed past an innocent Iowa linebacker for a 75-yard touchdown. Untouched, McCaffrey went down the field in a Cardinal and white blur, putting Stanford on the board in just eleven seconds.

And it just kept on coming — McCaffrey rushed for 65 yards on five carries on the next drive, leading Stanford to Iowa’s eight-yard line. There’s a special beauty in the way he runs, making defenders fall like they’ve been sniped, or even look like they’ve never played football before. He even mesmerized Iowa’s defenders, all eleven of whom sold out on stopping him on a read option, leaving Kevin Hogan an open path to waltz into the end zone.

The entire hundred billion or so Iowa fans in attendance were left to sit in silence, staring vacantly because they knew it was already over. Six minutes into the game.  That same swarm of yellow and black that had been confidently romping around the parking lot just hours before was forced to accept a fairly obvious reality: McCaffrey was the best player in the country, and his team belonged among college football’s elite. Like many Heisman voters, it just took them awhile to realize. The whole season, in fact.

McCaffrey kept darting around like a rabbit, scurrying past Iowa defenders on a 63-yard punt return touchdown on his first touch of the second quarter. Another touchdown later, Stanford had a 35-0 lead heading into halftime. And “Stanford Cardinal” engraved on the trophy. The first half was so dominant, so ruthless that it had Iowa fans cheering for a ten-second runoff after a penalty that ended the half.

Stanford had gone along at the speed of McCaffrey, holding the ball for just 10:10 while shattering the Rose Bowl record for points in a first half. With eight minutes to go. McCaffrey had 248 all-purpose yards in the first half — a cool 20.7 yards per touch.

Which raises the question: wasn’t Iowa supposed to be…. elite? Serviceable? Competitive? A college team?

There’s a reason the Iowa band was throwing confetti on the field when Iowa picked up a first down in Stanford territory in the third quarter. Dancing like they had won the lottery. Screaming their heads off. They had done the impossible.

And then when they scored a field goal on the same drive, the Iowa fan base erupted. Down 38-3. They recognized what was painfully obvious to everyone in the crowd: McCaffrey and Stanford were too good for this game. Too good for second-best. But it’ll just have to do — they saved their best case for when it was too late.

“People can write what they want and say what they want,” head coach David Shaw said Friday. “We know in our hearts how good we are. We put that on the field today. The rankings will be whatever they are, but to me, watching this game, you saw how explosive this team is. You saw how athletic this team is. You saw how physical this team is.”

McCaffrey might have set a record for records broken this season, but it won’t matter. Shaw emphasized that he talks “a lot about not sending messages,” but this game sent a very clear message. McCaffrey and his Rose Bowl record 368 all-purpose yards left the running back and Stanford in an uncomfortable second. Where they’ll likely end up in the AP poll, and McCaffrey’s Heisman position.

This very well might be the best team in Stanford history — one that had a season of “what could have been.” A strangely offputting yet enthralling feeling that will be eternally seared into the minds of Stanford fans. Never before have these fans seen such a dominant performance in the trenches and by a skill player on such a big stage. Never before, dare I say, have they seen a player like McCaffrey. As Shaw has repeated all season long, “No one can tell me that there’s a more dynamic player in college football right now.”

Had the ball not rolled around on the spongy turf at Stanford Stadium against Oregon, or had Stanford not played an early morning game in Evanston, or had McCaffrey been wearing Crimson, this probably would have been a different story. His team might be in the playoff, rolling over some lesser team, and he might have hoisted that stiff arm trophy. But it’s not, and that’s why it’s so painful.

When asked how much he’d like to play the winner of the Alabama-Clemson game, Hogan cracked up and looked at Shaw, telling him he didn’t know what he was supposed to say. “I know what you’re supposed to say,” Shaw shot back. “It feels great to be Rose Bowl champs,” Hogan conceded. Telling.

2015 will tantalize Stanford fans for years to come — but at least they have next season’s Heisman front-runner, or so we think. And a Rose Bowl trophy — that’s pretty nice too.


Cover Image: Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, right, breaks away form Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell during the second half of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game, Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)