An award-winning superstar performance only exists with a strong supporting cast around the lead. Just call Christian McCaffrey Leonardo DiCaprio, then: a premier main attraction always surrounded by top-notch co-stars.
McCaffrey did what McCaffrey does Saturday in Stanford’s 27-10 defeat of USC, rolling up 165 yards rushing, 73 receiving and 22 on a kickoff return, with a couple of touchdowns. Little changed since December, at least on that front, even if the faces around McCaffrey changed.
There are new plenty of new faces accompanying Stanford’s Heisman Trophy contender.
Instructively, while the supporting cast on The Farm changes, the Cardinal show no signs of drop-off early into the 2016 season. Starting with new quarterback Ryan Burns, Stanford’s first newcomer to the position since November of 2012, McCaffrey’s game has not dropped off individually from 2015 because the role players around him maintained a similarly high level.
Head coach David Shaw asked Burns to fill an especially big role. Predecessor Kevin Hogan started the better part of four years, winning three Pac-12 championships. That’s a benchmark for success not experienced by any quarterback in the league since Matt Leinart from 2003 through 2005.
Were that not enough of a lofty standard, Shaw said after last December’s Pac-12 Championship Game that Hogan earned his way onto a hypothetical Mount Rushmore of Stanford quarterbacks with John Elway, Jim Plunkett and Andrew Luck.
Burns doesn’t need to enter into that pantheon of Cardinal quarterbacks to maximize the potential of this Stanford offense, though. His 9-of-15 passing line for 109 yards with a touchdown — appropriately thrown to McCaffrey — accomplished its purpose.
USC had to respect the possibility of the pass to give the Cardinal rushing lanes — rushing lanes opened for ball-carriers other than McCaffrey.
Michael Rector, Burns’ primary target in the Week 1 defeat of Kansas State, went to the house on a long run broken off an end-round. That’s exactly the kind of trick in Shaw’s playbook the Cardinal coach unfurls when least expected, which is the most effective.
Remound Wright’s absence from the Cardinal running back rotation was plainly evident when McCaffrey’s No. 5 was called multiple times on a goal-line stand in the second quarter. However, Stanford can still show defenses a different look from Bryce Love.
It was Love who added a healthy 51 yards to complement McCaffrey’s 165 against a solid USC run defense. Against thinner front sevens, Love can expect to break out for big yardage on his opportunities.
Most impressive of the new co-stars, though: the offensive line. Consider the guys up front –opening holes for McCaffrey — Stanford’s version of DiCaprio going from appearing alongside Jonah Hill in Wolf of Wall Street, to sharing the screen with Tom Hardy in The Revenant.
The Cardinal front five lost Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett from the Pac-12 and Rose Bowl-winning lineup. Yet, Stanford’s big bodies continue to pave tunnel-sized gaps.
Shaw praised the group’s maturation during spring practices and fall camp, but the rhetoric is bearing out with production two games into the 2016 season. That could be the biggest factor in Stanford successfully defending its Pac-12 crown — and in the process, readying McCaffrey for another run at the Heisman Trophy.