By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 28, 2016
The Stanford football team outran and outmuscled Rice on Saturday, outrushing the visiting Owls by more than 200 yards in a 41-17 victory to complete its 2016 regular season schedule.
The 9-3 Cardinal used the same formula that had served it so well throughout the squad’s five-game winning streak: A lot of Christian McCaffrey, now fully healthy, nicely complemented by unremarkable but largely reliable and mistake-free quarterback play from Keller Chryst, a strong performance from an increasingly confident offensive line, contributions from the rest of the offensive and special-teams units, and a suffocating effort by the defense.
The fact that Stanford was playing another team with an at-best mediocre offense (see also: Arizona and Oregon State) and a lousy defense (see also: Arizona, Oregon State, Oregon and Cal) played a pretty important part, too.
The Cardinal banked 20 points in the first half, scoring on four of six possessions, including a one-play, nine-second possession that closed out the second quarter. The Owls, meanwhile, didn’t cross midfield until the second quarter and scored only a field goal before intermission, and that on their final drive of the half. What’s more, Stanford’s defense engineered four three-and-outs by the visiting offense.
Scoring opened on Stanford’s third play from scrimmage when Chryst pulled the ball down on third and 10 and scrambled around left end, where the region was notably lacking in Owls defenders. After passing midfield, Chryst headed to the sideline where Michael Rector was engaged with a Rice player. The quarterback then darted past a lunging linebacker, Emmanuel Ellerbee, by Rice’s 35-yard line.
Somehow, Chryst had kept his feet inbounds during this portion of the run, and now the the six-foot-five, 236-pound quarterback found himself with one man to beat. But once cornerback J.T. Blasingame put himself in position to interfere with Chryst’s progress, all the Stanford player had to do was stiffarm the smaller defender and take a few steps to cap his 62-yard scoring run.
The Cardinal’s second drive went 56 yards and resulted in a 28-yard field goal by Conrad “Ol’ Reliable” Ukropina. Most of the yardage was gained on two plays, a 12-yard reception by Trenton Irwin and a 39-yard Bryce Love run.
Chryst completed several short passes on the team’s third drive, which covered 66 yards and ended in a 23-yarder by Ukropina. Aside from back-to-back receptions by Rector, whose catches accounted for 10 and 12 yards, the highlight was a 26-yard run by Christian McCaffrey.
Stanford and Rice then exchanged punts, but here too McCaffrey made his presence felt in a major way on at least three different plays.
The first of those came on third and 3 from the Cardinal 20. McCaffrey, taking a pitchback from Chryst, hurdled a pile-up at the line of scrimmage and sprinted 42 yards. (He might have gone all the way if Blasingame hadn’t managed to drag him down at the Rice 38-yard line.)
The second impact play in this sequence came after the defense forced a three-and-out that led Rice to punt from its 11-yard line. Through 11 games, McCaffrey had made only seven punt returns for 52 yards, markedly fewer than the 15 returns for 130 yards that he had last year. (To be fair, those numbers were accumulated over a 13-game season and included a 63-yard punt-return TD in the 2016 Rose Bowl.) But when the Owls punted McCaffrey’s way with about six and a half minutes remaining in the second quarter, the junior was ready, returning the ball 33 yards to the Rice 23-yard line.
On the very next play, McCaffrey lined up in the slot on the left side and came to a stop in the flat before running to his right. Chryst hit him in stride as he eluded the grasp of the diving linebacker, Alex Lyons, who had the misfortune of covering one of the best collegiate athletes in the nation. Blasingame and safety Cole Thomas converged with McCaffrey around the 3-yard line, but the Colorado native just plowed past them on his way to the end zone.
Stanford extended its 20-3 halftime lead on its second drive of the third quarter. After Chryst opened the possession with an eight-yard toss to Rector, McCaffrey got the ball three straight times. First he ran for 10 yards. Then he ran for five yards. And then he squirted through the left side of the line, outran Ellerbee’s grasping arms, and scored a 19-yard touchdown that gave the hosts a 27-3 lead.
Rice responded with its first touchdown drive of the evening, a 13-play, 75-yard affair that consumed a little over four minutes and featured no gain longer than a 13-yard run by Jowan Davis. Davis scored on a six-yard carry to make the score 27-10.
Three plays later, Stanford was back in the end zone thanks to Love. The play began with Chryst pitching the ball back to McCaffrey, who turned to his left and tossed the rock to Love, who had lined up in the slot and started running right through the backfield on the snap. Love twisted away from defensive tackle Roe Wilkins, turned the corner and blazed up the sidelines for a 50-yard touchdown run that put the hosts ahead by three scores, 34-10.
The Owls responded with a three-and-out, one of a trio of short outings they had in the second half. That opened the door for Stanford to notch another quick score.
The sequence was set up when McCaffrey returned Rice’s punt for 11 yards to the Cardinal 48-yard line. He got the call on the first snap, too, which he converted into a seven-yard dash. On the second snap, Chryst took a deep shot to Francis Owusu, who was running a go route along the right sideline and had blown past his man (Blasingame, wouldn’t you know). The senior wideout slowed his stride and gathered the ball in around the 4-yard line before continuing — and completing — his journey to the end zone. The 45-yard reception was Owusu’s first score since his spectacular one-handed reach-around against UCLA in 2015, and only his third college touchdown.
After an exchange of punts that saw former starter Ryan Burns enter the game to play quarterback for the Cardinal, the Owls started out from their 8-yard line and mounted their best series of the night, driving 92 yards in 16 plays and 6:03. Davis’s 3-yard scoring run capped a possession that saw no gain longer than an 18-yard connection between J.T. Granato and receiver Connor Cella. Even so, the visitors were trailing 41-17 with only 77 seconds remaining in the contest.
The Owls recovered an onside kick but surrendered the ball on downs following a series that consisted of two incomplete pass attempts and two sacks. Both of the sacks were made by freshman outside linebacker Curtis Robinson, who had had only eight tackles through the season’s first 11 games but recorded five tackles against Rice alone.
Burns came back out with 30 seconds left in the game and ran twice for 17 yards to burn the rest of the clock.
McCaffrey once again was his usual extraordinary self: 204 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries (6.8 ypc), 23 yards and a touchdown on two catches and 44 yards on three punt returns. Overall, the junior, playing in what may prove to be his last game at Stanford Stadium, finished with 271 all-purpose yards on 36 touches. That made him No. 1 nationally in all-purpose yardage with 2,327 on the season and in all-purpose yards averaged with 211.55 yards per game.
As a team, the Cardinal finished with 373 rushing yards, the third time in four games that it topped the three-century mark in that category. Overall, Stanford had 534 yards rushing and receiving, the third game in a row that it exceeded 500 yards.
Stanford will be at home this weekend as Washington and Colorado played nearby in Santa Clara in the Pac-12 championship game. But the Cardinal is bowl bound and will have a chance to record 10 or more wins for the sixth time in seven season. Not bad for a down year, huh?