Star running back Christian McCaffrey had a perfectly adequate night in Stanford’s 22-13 win at UCLA, averaging 5.3 yards on his 26 carries for 138, and essentially carrying the Cardinal offense.
It matters little to his Heisman Trophy candidacy, which may have taken its first hit of the young season. But that matters even less to McCaffrey.
“I don’t look at stats at all,” he said Saturday at the Rose Bowl. “I’m just happy we got the win. I’ll have to look at the film, see if there’s some things I could have done better.”
Credit to UCLA: Bruins defensive coordinator Tom Bradley employed a sound strategy of containment, and the UCLA players executed by preventing McCaffrey from making that one, highlight-reel run he seemingly gets every time out.
“There were a couple times I was a cut away from breaking one long,” McCaffrey said.
Stanford head coach David Shaw was never shy about his stance on McCaffrey’s Heisman credentials in 2015. Shaw actively campaigned for his running back following last season’s Pac-12 Championship Game, and would surely welcome the award that eluded Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck previously to find its way onto The Farm.
Shaw probably would have loved to get his star running back into the end zone, if for no other reason than to pad his Heisman resume. A 138-yard night looks more impressive when accompanied by a score.
Deferring to wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside for the Cardinal’s lone offensive score may not have given McCaffrey his style points, but it gave Stanford the win.
Arcega-Whiteside has played in one game in his college football career, but already accomplished a feat few can boast with a game-winning catch. Stanford’s standout defensive lineman, Solomon Thomas, inadvertently stole Arcega-Whiteside’s thunder a bit with a scoop-and-score as time expired, but that’s just one more unconventional facet to an altogether unconventional win.
It’s a simple fact: Stanford doesn’t need to win pretty to repeat as Pac-12 Conference champions. Pretty’s overrated. Take away a couple of botched snaps in the red zone last November when the Cardinal lost to divisional rival Oregon, and that was one of the prettiest games Stanford played all season. And it kept the Cardinal out of the College Football Playoff.
McCaffrey called Saturday “a dogfight,” adding: “Every team has a couple dog fights each year.”
Compare the Oregon dogfight of November 2015 to Saturday versus UCLA. Stanford really had only one pretty offensive drive at the Rose Bowl, but it was critical to a win — not that the Cardinal can rely on late-game heroics for the remainder of their schedule, which has nine more dates consecutively without a bye week.
“It definitely gives your offense a confidence boost, but at the same time, we need to be doing it all game,” McCaffrey said. “We’ve got to be more efficient.”
Efficient isn’t necessarily synonymous with stylish, but it is for Stanford. To that end, racking up style points while still learning to be more efficient — i.e., being more balanced in the run and pass — may not be realistic.
Ryan Burns’ poise on the game-winning drive, however, has Stanford pointing in the right direction ahead of a Top 10 showdown with Washington.
His continued growth will open the field for McCaffrey to have more opportunities at those Heisman moment runs. With the defense performing as well as it has in the Shaw era, the Cardinal are as close to a perfectly balanced approach as they have had.