(Photos courtesy of Eric Taylor/1st String Sports)
By Morris Phillips
After thumping Rice, 41-17, in their season finale, the Stanford Cardinal had a story to tell, it just wasn’t the story the assembled press was prying and probing after.
The Cardinal capped a nine-win season with a dominant performance against the Conference USA Owls, finishing their regular season with a five-game win streak, after the talent-laden team found itself embarrassed by three mid-season losses to the Pac-12’s upper tier.
During that stretch in which Stanford came up short against both Pac-12 Championship Game entrants—Pac-12 South champion Colorado and North winner, Washington–as well as a sobering home loss to Washington State, a whole lot of soul searching went on, and the Cardinal had to rebuild themselves quietly and outside the spotlight of the BCS championship race.
But the young team stocked with inexperienced talent in its freshman and sophomore classes did it, and for that, Coach David Shaw couldn’t be more proud.
“Even when the season wasn’t going the right way, even when we were booted out of the top-25, whatever that means, we still practiced hard,” Shaw recounted. “We practiced well, we practiced with energy and passion. That’s what I’m most proud of. Because it can’t just come from me.”
“It has to come from the team. You have to have the right group of guys.”
Stanford’s unquestioned best players—Christian McCaffrey and Solomon Thomas—stand right at the top of the list of that “right” group. The Heisman runner-up last season suffered through an injury-plagued season, missing most of the WSU game and the entirety of the Notre Dame game amid the losing streak. But once he regained his health, Stanford soared. McCaffrey outclassed Rice with more than 200 yards all-purpose yardage—his fifth, consecutive such outing and the 19th of his illustrious career.
Thomas was a nightmare for Rice, repeatedly blowing up plays Rice ran to their right and into Thomas’ wheelhouse. Thomas was in on five tackles on Saturday night, and added a sack of Rice quarterback, Jackson Tyner. Rice’s freshman quarterback, replacing normal starter Tyler Stehling, had a miserable outing, missing on 27 of his 37 pass attempts, once again illustrating Thomas’ imprint on Stanford’s easy win.
But for both McCaffrey and Thomas it started at practice, as Shaw described, repetition after repetition without a bunch of verbal stuff, and filled with selfless acts.
“Solomon Thomas is a leader, pure and simple,” safety Justin Reid said. “The way he plays, his enthusiasm, his effort, his leadership, everything about him just screams a leader to this team. And he makes huge plays for us, comes up big in the red zone, and in third downs and with the sacks that he’s made.”
Both Thomas and McCaffrey face decisions to turn pro, or return to Stanford for their senior seasons. Both project as first or second round picks so big money factors into their decisions. The fortunes of the team—stacked with younger talent, an emerging quarterback in Keller Chryst, and the stability provided by Shaw, who continues to reject offers from other programs and the NFL—hinge on their decisions.
So what will the pair do, especially McCaffrey who prompted all the initial questions, asked in varied and creative ways, during the postgame presser?
“Hope springs eternal,” Shaw said, when asked about McCaffrey and the possibility he would return when there’s very little new for him to accomplish as a collegian. “Hasn’t crossed my plate yet.”
McCaffrey spoke as well, saying he has not yet decided. In fact, his roommate, Chryst, swore that the pair haven’t even casually discussed the tailback’s pro prospects. But that all adds up, given McCaffrey’s team first attitude.
“I’ve just been focusing on the season now,” McCaffrey said. “I have people and mentors in my life that I trust that I’ll go to. But at the end of the day it is my decision and I’ll make whatever’s best for me.”
Among those mentors, McCaffrey’s father Ed, has a place on the wall at Stanford Stadium where the program’s previous All-American’s are pictured and honored. Christian will soon join his father there, as well as his mom, Lisa, in the pantheon of great athletes to come through Stanford. Undoubtedly, it will be tough for McCaffrey to leave, but again, he’s done it all, and other challenges await.
GAME NOTES: McCaffrey has 30 rush attempts for 205 yards against Rice, one week after he crushed Cal with 30 carries, 284 yards. Fully healthy, the junior won’t face many questions about durability after carrying the ball 60 times in what could be his final two regular season games at Stanford.
“We knew coming in here, you had to tackle Christian, and not let him have a big game,” Rice coach David Bailiff said. “We didn’t do that. Not a lot of people have done that.”
“Every time he touched the ball there was a collective gasp to see what he’s going to do next,” Shaw said.
Bryce Love, the emerging back behind McCaffrey, had 114 yards rushing on seven carries, including a blazing reverse that went 50 yards for a touchdown in third quarter.
Chryst finished 11 for 16 for 154 yards and joins a short list of Stanford quarterbacks that have won their first four, career starts. In those four starts, Chryst has thrown nine touchdown passes and only one interception.
Kicker Conrad Ukropina capped his Stanford career with a pair of made field goals, from 28 and 23 yards, despite the persistent rain and muddy field.
The Cardinal are expected to accept a bowl invitation to the December 28 Foster Farms Bowl at Santa Clara or the December 30 Sun Bowl at El Paso, Texas. The Las Vegas Bowl on December 17 also remains a possibility.