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RB McCaffrey's historic night powers Stanford past UCLA, into playoff mix

Christian McCaffrey’s historic game against UCLA headlines a night when Stanford showed why is a serious contender for the College Football Playoff.

PALO ALTO, Calif. — When Andrew Luck returns to Stanford in the summer, he likes to tease strength coach Shannon Turley about making sure the Cardinal program remains a meritocracy. For those of us who didn’t score high enough on the SAT verbal, Luck essentially means that the essence of the Stanford program is rooted in the belief that opportunities should be earned as opposed to gifted. In short, production trumps hype.

So it’s notable that on sophomore tailback Christian McCaffrey’s first summer workout in 2014, Stanford veterans saw his speed and explosiveness and began chirping, “Heisman! Heisman!”

At 6-foot and just a shade over 200 pounds, McCaffrey doesn’t scare anyone coming off the bus. But his Stanford teammates were impressed enough at their first glance of his speed and agility that their initial observation is beginning to look more like a prediction.

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As No. 15 Stanford eviscerated No. 18 UCLA 56–35 on Thursday night to solidify itself as a Pac-12 favorite and College Football Playoff contender, that premonition began to look like a reality. McCaffrey delivered one of the most dominating singular performances in recent college football history, a performance that evoked the brilliance of players like Reggie Bush, Percy Harvin or LaMichael James.

“He's a big back” Stanford coach David Shaw said, “in a little body.”

McCaffrey’s 369 total yards were the most of any player in the FBS this year. They included a 96-yard kickoff return, a Wildcat touchdown run for 70 yards and a total of four scores. (It could have been five if he didn’t get caught on the four-yard line on the kick return). McCaffrey took pitches to the corner, ran with his shoulders squared between the tackles and was so dominant that virtually the entire stadium emptied by the end of the third quarter. He finished the night with 243 yards on 25 carries, a cool 9.7 yards per hand off.

“This is just one of those phenomenal performances when you look back and say, ‘Wow,’” Shaw told after the game.

The only thing McCaffrey didn’t do was deliver the most memorable highlight of the night. Receiver Francis Owusu took those honors by hauling in a 41-yard touchdown pass from Kevin Hogan by pinning the ball on the back of Jaleel Wadood. Owusu essentially leapt up, bear-hugged Wadood and caught the ball by holding it against Wadood’s spine while falling to the ground. It was so remarkable that Shaw broke a lifetime of sideline stoicism by reacting like an overzealous walk-on.

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“I was just shocked,” Shaw said. “I still am. I still want to go back and see it again. It doesn't make any sense to me.”

Owusu delivered a remarkable moment, but McCaffrey just kept on making history, all without stepping on the field in the fourth quarter. He broke Toby Gerhardt’s school rushing record (223 yards) with a minute remaining in the third quarter. And remember, Gerhardt ended up as a Heisman Trophy finalist that year.

McCaffrey overtook San Jose State’s Tyler Ervin for the No. 1 spot in all-purpose yards, and he has likely stiff-armed his way up a few Heisman lists with his performance. Credit good genes, as his father, Ed, was an NFL All-Pro and his mom, Lisa, was a soccer star at Stanford who once joked to SI, “That’s why Ed and I got together, so we could breed fast white guys.”

That looks like a pretty prescient plan. Aiding Christian McCaffrey’s nascent Heisman campaign is the sudden surge of his team’s national relevance. On Sept. 5, when Stanford sleepwalked through a 16–6 loss at Northwestern, the Cardinal looked so sluggish and unimaginative on offense that even the most innovative code junkie in Silicon Valley couldn’t have written a scenario in which they’d return to the national conversation. But as a chill enters the October air, Stanford resonates the as the Pac-12’s best chance to get a team in the College Football Playoff this season. (You can argue Utah, but Stanford would be favored on a neutral field if they played next week. And, don’t forget, the Pac-12 title game will be nearby at Levi’s Stadium).

Suddenly, petite Stanford Stadium (50,000) will become one of the most important places in college football in the next six weeks. Stanford hosts Washington, Oregon, California and Notre Dame and has road games at Washington State and Colorado. Even for those who guzzled that extra glass of chardonnay in the ultra-civilized pre-game tailgate here, that stretch looks manageable.

So how did the Cardinal recast themselves from sputtering underachievers to a potential playoff program? Well, they didn’t change a thing.

Stanford looks like Stanford again, recapturing the blueprint that helped the program become one of college football’s unlikely powers the last decade. Shaw never panicked after the Cardinal went 8–5 last season. And he didn’t really change a thing after that disastrous performance at Northwestern.

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“Last year, we definitely had a salty taste in our mouth at the end of the season,” McCaffrey said. “(After) our first game, we easily could have folded.”

This is a Stanford team that imposes its will and methodically crushes your defense’s morale one power run at a time. This is Stanford with a quarterback (Hogan) whose 29 wins lead all of college football, a tight end (Austin Hooper) who rekindles memories of Zach Ertz and an offensive line that is finally playing up to its recruiting hype. (Insert meritocracy joke here for that group). Stanford’s defense was expected to be porous this season after replacing the entire secondary, but the Cardinal got a pick-six from emerging star Alijah Holder and made UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen’s scintillating debut against Virginia feel like it was in 1988.

At the halfway point, Stanford is putting up a performance that resembles 2014 Ohio State. They lost early, found themselves and are quietly building an identity and momentum.

After McCaffrey’s historic night Thursday, Stanford isn’t sneaking up on anyone anymore. The Cardinal have streaked from obscurity to the College Football Playoff conversation the same way McCaffrey streaked into the Heisman conversation—they’ve earned it. Somewhere, Andrew Luck is surely smiling.