By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 23, 2015
Football is a team sport, so let’s begin with the group accomplishments that we saw in Saturday night’s 118th football clash between Stanford and Cal.
The Cardinal won, 35-22, thereby extending the team’s Big Game win streak to six and insuring that the Stanford Axe would remain in its rightful place on the Farm for at least another year. The seniors became the 13th class to graduate without ever having lost the Axe to the archrivals from across the San Francisco Bay. The squad scored at least 30 points in 10 straight games for the first time in four years. And head coach David Shaw’s team swept its in-state rivals — the Golden Bears, USC and UCLA — for the first time since 2012. (The Trojans had beaten Stanford each of the past two seasons.)
Perhaps more importantly, Stanford moved to 9-2 on the season and clinched the Pac-12 Northern Division title with an 8-1 conference record. Regardless of the outcome of the regular season finale against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Stanford will play for a Rose Bowl berth on Dec. 5 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, a short drive from campus.
Let’s move on to the individual accomplishments, starting with — who else? — Christian McCaffrey. The super sophomore turned in the best all-around performance in Stanford football history, with his 386 all-purpose yards eclipsing the 25-year-old record of 379 set by Glyn Milburn against Cal. The Coloradan ran 29 times for 192 yards, with a long of 24; returned three kickoffs for 148 yards, including a personal-best 98-yard touchdown runback; and scored on a phenomenal 49-yard catch-and-run, his sole reception on the evening.
Moreover, McCaffrey extended his school record by turning in his ninth straight 100-yard rushing game. The previous Stanford high mark was Toby Gerhart’s seven games, set in 2009.
Meanwhile, senior runner Remound Wright, the club’s second-leading scorer behind kicker Conrad Ukropina, added to his team-high 11 touchdowns — all but one on the ground — with a pair of short scoring runs, plus a trio of successful carries in short third- and fourth-down situations. Sophomore cornerback Terrence Alexander led the defense with 10 tackles (eight solo), besting his previous personal high of four stops. Freshman nickelback Quinton Meeks was right behind Alexander with eight solo tackles and an assist, also besting his previous personal record of six total tackles. And sophomore linebacker Joey Alfieri (five stops overall) notched a personal-best two tackles-for-loss, including a 13-yard sack.
In some ways, Saturday’s game was extremely familiar to Cardinal Nation, and not just because of that six-game win streak. Witness the following:
• The Cardinal scored the game’s first points, as it has 10 times this season. After two short gains on a Barry Sanders run and a Bryce Love reception from Kevin Hogan, McCaffrey ran four times, including a 24-yard advance, to bring the ball to the Cal 2-yard line, at which point Wright did his thing.
• Cal scored on all five of its red zone visits, but it managed only two touchdowns. In 2015, only USC has scored more than two touchdowns against the Cardinal on drives that reached the red zone.
• Stanford led at the half, 21-6, as it has nine times this year.
• The Golden Bears scored on their first possession after intermission, a field goal that left them trailing, 21-9. Stanford opponents have scored on their first series after the break in seven games.
The end result, of course, made for a very satisfying evening for the Cardinal team and its supporters. This came even though the Golden Bears outgained Stanford, 495-356, and held the ball for 31 minutes and 16 seconds — only the second occasion the Cardinal hadn’t had the superior time of possession in the past 17 games.
I wrote of Stanford’s loss to Oregon that the result came down to three relatively undramatic plays. By contrast, the 118th Big Game came down to a handful of big plays.
The first of those came in the second quarter, with the Cardinal up 7-3, when Hogan completed a short backfield pass to the left. McCaffrey converted that into a 49-yard touchdown reception with a cut across the field, twisting his way past at least five defenders who had a reasonable chance to end his progress.
McCaffrey was involved in the second big play, after Cal’s second field goal. The Coloradan took the kickoff at the 2-yard line, found a seam on the right and, thanks in part to a devastating Barry Sanders block, zoomed untouched along the sideline. By the time McCaffrey got to midfield, it was clear that he would score. The play gave the hosts a 15-point lead just 38 seconds before intermission.
Cal got into a bit of a rhythm in the second half, with their all-Pac-12 quarterback contender, Jared Goff, completing his first 10 passes of the third quarter. But he cooled somewhat in the final period.
After Wright scored his second touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter, the Bears drove 64 yards before Goff threw incomplete on fourth and 15 on the Stanford 22-yard line. Five plays later, Love officially salted away a Cardinal victory.
With Love lined up as a receiver on the right, and with the offensive line directing defenders to the right, Hogan faked a handoff to McCaffrey going off of left tackle. (McCaffrey went upfield with minimal resistance, incidentally.) The ball actually went to Love, who streaked around the left end, used a key stutter-step and a helpful block to stay out of the arms of would-be tacklers, and zipped along the sideline for another easy Stanford touchdown.
That made the score 35-16 in favor of the Cardinal and White. The Bears would score a make-good touchdown with 104 seconds remaining in the contest on a 31-yard completion from Goff to Bryce Treggs — who I’m almost certain must have grown up in Palo Alto — but that was it.
There were a few surprises beyond the Bears leading in time of possession. Senior linebacker Blake Martinez recorded nine tackles, six of them unassisted, but as indicated above, he was not Stanford’s leading defender. (That’s only the second time this season a teammate has eclipsed him in total stops.) Hogan was also uncharacteristically quiet, with a pair of rushes for 2 yards and just 7 completions in 12 attempts for 96 yards and that McCaffrey touchdown. I had the impression that Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren deliberately used a vanilla playbook in an attempt to lull this Saturday’s opponent, Notre Dame, into thinking of the Cardinal as a one-dimensional team.
At any rate, regardless of what happens against the Fighting Irish, Stanford has secured an appearance in the conference championship game. That’s a good thing, and if the Cardinal can beat the Southern Division representative, that will be even better. Go Stanford!