By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 2, 2016
A week after the Stanford football team suffered an ignominious 10-5 homecoming defeat at the hands of a rising Colorado program, the Cardinal got just what the doctor ordered: A date with Arizona.
The Wildcats have been decimated by injuries; they came in sporting a woeful 2-5 record, highlighted (if that’s the word) by victories over Grambling State and Hawaii. In the end, they provided minimal resistance to a distressed Stanford squad, which bumped its record up to 5-3 (3-3 in Pac-12 play) by notching a 34-10 road win.
Head coach David Shaw and his staff elected to start junior Keller Chryst at quarterback instead of senior Ryan Burns — understandable given the incumbent’s record of five touchdowns vs. seven interceptions and four lost fumbles. Whether because of that change or the dismal quality of the Wildcats defense, which entered the game allowing an average of 33 points and 475 yards over its first seven games, the Cardinal was able to roll to a 34-10 win.
The W was great, and it felt awfully novel after the Cardinal had dropped three straight conference games to Washington, Washington State and Colorado. But two things felt even more significant than that.
One was that Christian McCaffrey broke past the century mark in rushing yards for the first time in more than a month, carrying on 23 plays for 169 yards. It was his most efficient rushing performance of the year and a close runner-up (see what I did there?) to the 172 yards he racked up against USC. His 34 receiving yards on five catches and 29 yards on three punt returns brought McCaffrey to 225 all-purpose for the game, again a relatively close second to the 260 yards he had against the Trojans. It was great to see the Colorado native run free again.
McCaffrey also scored three touchdowns in a true road game for the first time in his collegiate career. Given the Cardinal’s paucity of offensive scoring since (again) the victory over USC — four touchdowns over five games, of which only two were truly meaningful — the scoring cascade was truly exhilarating to Cardinal true believers.
The game didn’t open in promising fashion, as Stanford punted on all three of its first-quarter possessions, including a three-and-out on Chryst’s debut series as a starter.
Things changed with a one-play drive at the beginning of the second quarter when Chryst handed off to McCaffrey. The junior burst through a big hole and outran a handful of defenders to score a 45-yard touchdown.
The Wildcats drove to the Cardinal 35-yard line on the ensuing drive but turned the ball over on downs. The visiting offense opened its possession calling a rushing play for Bryce Love, who covered 30 yards in one go. Five plays later, McCaffrey was left uncovered coming out of the backfield, and Chryst targeted him for an 18-yard receiving touchdown.
On its next go-around, Arizona was able to score when Brandon Dawkins connected with Trey Griffey for a 38-yard touchdown, narrowing Stanford’s lead to 14-7.
Disaster nearly struck the Cardinal on the ensuing drive. When Chryst recklessly attempted to throw a pass while being pulled to the ground by a Wildcat defender, his wounded duck was picked off by Dane Cruikshank.
This bad play could have had a huge impact on the game. However, offensive lineman Nate Herbig, a true freshman making his first career start, forced a fumble that fullback Chris Harrell recovered and returned for 15 yards. It was only the Cardinal’s second fumble recovery of the season.
Given a second chance, the Cardinal advanced to the Arizona 28-yard line. Conrad Ukropina took it from there, booting a 45-yard field goal to give Stanford a 17-7 lead shortly before halftime.
The second half opened with an exchange of punts before Stanford moved to the Arizona 9-yard line on its second drive of the third quarter, largely thanks to a 29-yard McCaffrey run. “Ol’ Reliable” Ukropina came on again and hit a three-point kick from 26 yards out.
Arizona’s responding drive lasted just 14 seconds. After an incomplete pass by Anu Solomon, he fumbled on what appeared to be a handoff attempt. Stanford linebacker Mike Tyler pounced on the ball, setting up first and 10 for the Cardinal at the opponent’s 23-yard line.
Shaw and his offensive coordinator, Mike Bloomgren, didn’t try anything fancy. McCaffrey carried the rock three times: Once for 13 yards, again for four yards and then for a six-yard touchdown, his third score of the game and his second rushing TD on the evening.
The Wildcats responded with an eight-play, 65-yard drive that stalled at the Stanford 10. Josh Pollack came on for a 27-yard field goal that cut Stanford’s lead to 27-10.
The score stayed that way until late in the fourth quarter when Dawkins threw a terrible pass that free safety Ben Edwards picked off easily and returned 35 yards to the Arizona 39. After a short Love run, Chryst threw to Dalton Schultz for 11 yards. Two more short ground gains by Love, an incomplete pass and a pass interference penalty on Arizona set up goal to goal at the 5-yard line.
On third down, J.J. Whiteside-Arcega ran a fade route to the right side. Chryst threw to him for a touchdown despite enough interference from an Arizona defensive back to elicit a penalty flag (it was declined, of course) and, presumably, a marriage proposal. That gave Stanford the final margin on a much-needed 34-10 road victory.
I’d expect that the Stanford team and staff heaved a huge sigh of relief after the game; certainly I know that I did. A conference title is out of reach, but the Cardinal still has a shot at a 10-win season. And that, my friends, is nothing to sneeze at.