SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Behind an incredible showing from running back Christian McCaffrey in his final showing for Heisman voters, No. 7 Stanford raced past No. 20 USC 41–22 to claim the Pac-12 championship. However, with Clemson beating North Carolina and Alabama’s victory over Florida, the Cardinal are poised to get shut out of the playoff. Here are three thoughts on Stanford’s conference title.
1. Christian McCaffrey should win the Heisman
Yeah, Deshaun Watson is good and Derrick Henry is nothing to sneer at, but it’s the forgotten running back from the West Coast who is the most outstanding player in college football this season, and it’s not close.
McCaffrey’s stats Saturday were eye-popping: 32 rushes for 207 yards and a touchdown, four catches for 105 yards and a score, 120 kick return yards and 29 punt return yards for an all-purpose total of 461 yards. He also THREW for a touchdown and was the game’s leading passer at halftime due to some spotty play from teammate Kevin Hogan and USC’s Cody Kesser.
But if you’ve been following McCaffrey all season, his performance wasn’t exactly a departure from normal. He broke Barry Sanders’ single-season all-purpose yards record midway through the USC contest, a number that had stood almost 30 years. (McCaffrey is up to 3,496 yards through 13 games with a bowl game still to come; Sanders finished the 1988 season at Oklahoma State with 3,250 yards in just 11 games.)
If it weren’t for so many late Stanford kickoffs, when a huge chunk of the 800+ Heisman voters are snoozing on the East Coast, McCaffrey would be the runaway favorite. He's got endorsements from his teammates and coaches, of course, but also from the opposition. Asked what makes McCaffrey so good, USC linebacker Su'a Cravens sighed and shook his head, “I mean, what doesn't he do? He catches the ball in the backfield, makes the guy miss and takes it to the house. He rushes the ball inside and on the edge and really, can score with any play they draw up for him. He's just a special guy. He should win the Heisman.”
2. Wow, where has this Stanford defense been?
McCaffrey has stolen the show for the Cardinal this season, which has masked their dip defensively. Stanford has still been good on defense but not great, falling from the best in the Pac-12 to third best at 376 yards allowed per game entering Saturday.
But the Cardinal looked like their old selves for stretches against the Trojans, especially in the first half, when USC stumbled to just 80 total yards of offense. Stanford allowed just three USC first downs before halftime. “Oh yeah, we were feeling pretty good at the beginning,” said Cardinal linebacker Blake Martinez, who finished with a team-high 11 tackles. “I know we don't have those premier guys like Trent Murphy or Shane Skov, guys that people always talk about, but we have a great group.”
The highlight of the night came when Martinez, Stanford’s best defensive player, sacked Kessler at the end of the third quarter and stripped him of the football. Solomon Thomas scooped it up and raced for the end zone, giving Stanford a 27–16.
3. There’s hope for USC
Six days after removing the interim tag from head coach Clay Helton, the Trojans looked resilient against the Cardinal. A brutal first half—the offense had no rhythm, the defense couldn’t even find McCaffrey—implied USC might completely fall apart. But the Trojans made some second half adjustments, started clicking offensively—USC recorded 13 first downs in the third quarter—and even took the lead for a couple minutes in the third quarter on a Ronald Jones II touchdown run.
Inconsistency has been the theme of this USC season, and Saturday was no exception. The good news is that with Helton plugged in as head coach going forward, the Trojans should find stability and be back in the conference title game soon. Asked afterward about the trajectory of the program, Kessler (22 of 27 for 187 yards with one touchdown Saturday) didn't hesitate. “This man right here,” he said, referring to Helton, “100%, no doubt at all, he's the right man for this job.”