Stanford looked rejuvenated in its 34-10 win at Arizona. The biggest storyline of the game was David Shaw’s decision to start Keller Chryst at quarterback instead of the struggling Ryan Burns. While the call definitely paid off with a win, Chryst did not look very convincing for several stretches of the game, missing a few downfield passes. His final stat line was 14-for-30 with 104 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. In terms of pure stats, Chryst performed no better than Burns did the last few weeks.
But the difference-maker in this game was the resurgence of Christian McCaffrey.
The Stanford running back looked completely healthy and was impressive in all aspects of the game. He totaled 23 carries for 169 yards and two touchdowns — one of which came on the receiving side — and was explosive in punt returning. Not only was McCaffrey healthier, but he also got very good blocking for the first time in weeks. Whether this was because of an improved offensive line, or just a weak Arizona team, is to be determined. But regardless of the opponent, Stanford looked much improved in all aspects of the game, especially special teams, both in punting and field goal attempts.
This game could serve as a harbinger of things to come. Stanford has a decidedly easier remaining schedule and should continue to add victories to the W column with a visit from a 2-6 Oregon State team followed by a trip to the depleted Ducks. With two formidable running backs now healthy, better offensive blocking and a shutdown defense, Stanford should perform at the level that was expected of it at the beginning of the season.
The Cardinal still have a shot at some very good bowl games, but with three losses, they will likely not be in contention for New Year’s Day bowl games, even if they run the table. If Stanford finishes the season decently, with four losses, it might get drawn to the Las Vegas Bowl, which is one of the first bowl games of the year. The Foster Farms Bowl would probably pass on Stanford given the weak turnout two years ago, despite the fact that the game was played just 12 miles from campus. Sin City would be a more likely destination, as the game will be played the day after fall quarter finals end and Stanford could, in theory, see a significant number of students journey to the desert before winter break begins in earnest.
But Stanford can still shoot for more prestigious Bowls. First of all, it is not unprecedented for a three-loss team to make it to a New Year’s Six bowl, but Stanford would need a lot of help in that department. Short of a miracle, Stanford would probably end up in the Cactus or Holiday bowl, depending on its final ranking among Pac-12 competitors.
The CFP committee releases its first rankings this week, so it will be interesting to see where Pac-12 teams rank in comparison with other title contenders. Washington will surely be ranked in the top four, but it will be more noteworthy to see where Washington State, Colorado, Utah and USC rank. If these teams have strong rankings, that will improve Stanford’s strength of schedule, and the Cardinal could reappear in the top 25 after a couple more wins.
Stanford has shown talent and resiliency this season, despite its poor performance in many games, specifically on the offensive side.
The loss that hurt the most was not a blowout to either of the Washington teams, but Stanford’s slumping to defeat against the Buffaloes. Close games like that are what define seasons. Stanford cannot afford any more blunders at this point. The next two weeks will bring clarity to the Pac-12 race. Stanford fans should root for Washington to keep winning — and Wazzu and Colorado losses would definitely not hurt along the way.
It will be interesting to see which quarterback Shaw starts next week, given the lukewarm performance of Chryst but fortuitous outcome of the game. If Stanford truly has returned to the form of last season, this Saturday against Oregon State should produce more epic numbers for Christian McCaffrey, and maybe even fan excitement again.
Contact Michael Spelfogel about his ulterior motives in arguing for the Las Vegas Bowl at mspel ‘at’ stanford.edu.